Capital Clicks

Jury awards $8 million in defamation case

By: - June 18, 2021 11:22 am

The Iowa Board of Social Work has accused an Iowa-licensed social worker of sending videos and texts of a sexual nature to a client. (Creative Commons photo via

A jury has awarded damages totaling $8 million to a Polk County man and his daughter in a defamation case against a Des Moines lawyer who repeatedly claimed the man had molested his daughter.

A jury returned a verdict June 8 that awarded a total of $8 million to Thomas and Aynsley Starbuck against Jaysen McCleary. The Starbucks sought relief in district court for more than 30 defamation counts and two counts of punitive damages. The lawsuit was filed in December 2018. 

In the initial court filing, the plaintiffs cited McCleary’s public written and verbal statements saying Thomas Starbuck sexually molested his daughter as the reason for the suit. McCleary’s claims were published in 2016 and 2017 “without evidence or offer of proof,” the complaint states. In the years since the case was filed, McCleary moved to dismiss the trial several times. All the dismissals were denied by District Judge Celene Gogerty. 

The jury trial commenced on June 7, but the defendant failed to appear, according to public court documents. The court directed McCleary to appear in person for the court proceedings and denied his request to appear by phone. He was found in default due to his failing to appear at the trial. 

Judge Gogerty awarded Thomas Starbuck $6.2 million and Aynsley Starbuck $1.8 million. The jury found the conduct of McCleary to be “directed specifically at both Thomas and Aynsley Starbuck” in regard to punitive damages.

Editor’s note:  Jaysen McCleary filed a defamation suit against Clark Kauffman, currently Iowa Capital Dispatch deputy editor, and his former employer, The Des Moines Register, related to a story the Register published in 2017. The case was dismissed; McCleary has filed additional motions attempting to revive it.

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a third-year student at the University of Iowa where she studies journalism and mass communication and global health studies. She worked as a news reporter covering shared governance and higher education and a digital producer for The Daily Iowan since her freshman year. In the fall, she will return to the paper as a news editor. As a second-year, she hosted and co-produced "On The Record", the DI's news podcast that was named Best Podcast by the Iowa Newspaper Association.