Tuan Joseph Pham wins defamation suit appeal

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The Minnesota Supreme Court refused to hear an appeals case brought by seven St. Paul defendants who the lower courts agreed defamed Tuan J. Pham, his wife Mai Vu and their former St. Paul grocery, Capital Market, who won the initial case and the appeal in 2006. The latest legal action, announced on November 19, 2007, and released last week by Pham’s defense, brings to an end a bitterly divisive issue that has wounded the Vietnamese American community across the country with the flag and values of the Republic at the heart of the issue.

Pham, 71, was initially awarded damages of $693,000.00 in Ramsey County Second Judicial District Court, which was later reduced to $353,000. A jury agreed that the seven defendants ruined Pham’s business and reputation.

Pham called the decision “a victory for the U.S. judicial system” and vowed to pursue the long legal battle to protect his rights and honor as a matter of principle. “…The truth is important and worth fighting for,” Pham said to his attorney.

“This case is my legacy to my children and the Vietnamese community across the United States,” he said. “A person’s hard-earned reputation cannot be destroyed without legal consequences and the judicial system affirmed that principle now in three separate proceedings.”

“This case was never about money, but rather about justice and honor,” says Pham’s attorney, Darrin Rosha, of Scherzo and Trio Legal Advisors, PLLC in St. Paul. “Mr. Pham lost his livelihood and his reputation was severely harmed, but the Minnesota Supreme Court has acted to restore both by refusing to disturb the jury’s findings. It’s a fitting decision that underscores how due process works in this country and a righteous result for an honorable man who should be seen as a hero in the Vietnamese and broader community not only for his sacrifices during the war but for his pursuit of justice following a difficult chain of events in St. Paul.”

The lawsuit arose from events that were triggered by a visit to St. Paul by His Excellency Hoang Van Tiem, Bishop of Bui Chu Diocese in Vietnam on December 17, 2003. Bishop Tiem was in the U.S. to attend a Bishops conference and scheduled visits in California, Houston and Chicago.

Joseph Pham is a Catholic community leader in the Twin Cities who was appointed to the Board of the Catholic Community Foundation, and wanted Bishop Tiem to meet with Archbishop Flynn and Minnesota’s Vietnamese Catholics, estimated at one-quarter of the 23,000 overall population. He is convinced that the diocese can make a difference in Vietnam, and traveled there on several occasions with students, scientists and the U.S. government officials.

Tiem was made bishop three years ago, following the death of Tran Van Nhat, a relative of Joseph Pham. Bui Chu, along with Phat Diem are the two largest Catholic dioceses in North Vietnam. Many North Vietnamese Catholics fled to the South after 1954, and later to the U.S. when the Republic fell.

Pham and Bishop Tiem arrived with three other Vietnamese priests, two from St. Joseph Hien and St. Adelbert, and a third from New Orleans. Pham escorted the Bishop and served as his driver in visits to Vietnamese Catholic communities in St. Paul.

When they arrived at the Vietnam Center, Pham said Bishop Tiem walked to within 300 feet of the building and saw the flag of the Republic flying above and stopped. He asked to leave and in Pham’s car he explained to him of his concern over being pictured with symbols of the Republic, and felt this jeopardized his position as a Bishop, endangering himself and the church in his country.

Bishop Tiem made it clear he was here to discuss the needs of the poor and sick in his diocese, and of the crumbling church and school buildings in disrepair.

There were dozens of guests inside waiting for Bishop Tien, and rather than leave and continue on to a private residence, Yen Van Pham, executive director, Vietnam Social Services of Minnesota, and also president of the Bui Chu Association, reportedly acted quickly to ensure the Bishop’s would remain, and had the flag lowered until the Bishop entered, and then raised it again. He organized the event and the facility was rented for the private, invitation only function, and did not involve officially the Vietnam Center or VSS.

The Defendants in the case, along with others who were not party to the lawsuit, soon learned of the visit and were upset as the flag represents the Republic of Vietnam, which is the flag of most American Vietnamese refugees who fought and languished in prisons following the fall of Saigon in 1975. They accused Joseph Pham and others of putting the Communist regime before the Republic.

Joseph Pham was incensed that people could think him a communist for this episode or because his roots are North Vietnam. He recalled being imprisoned by the communists and at one point was in solitary confinement for a year, with hands and feet shackled from behind. As a boy, he delivered messages for the catholic parishes to the Bishop, avoiding detection from communists as a young farmer.

The Defendants soon called for the removal of the leadership of the organization that controls the Vietnam Center. They also claimed “moral turpitude” on the part of Pham and called for his removal from the Vietnamese Educational Foundation.

Protests began in front of the Vietnam Center and in front of Joseph Pham’s business and home. Protest leaders, Mr. Thiet Nguyen, a board member of Vietnam Social Services since 1996, and Linda Vu, president of the Vietnamese Women’s Association, and Dean Do, spoke of self-interest and personal benefit on the board at the expense of community

The defendants and others begin labeling South Vietnamese patriot a Communist. The issue grew into a rancorous controversy that divided the Twin Cities Vietnamese community and was hotly debated nationally on Vietnamese radio programs.

Pham Van Vy, board chair of both the Vietnam Center and the VSS, took full responsibility for the incident, and published a letter of apology in Ngay Nay Vietnamese Newspaper on Dec. 22, 2003. He said the flag lowering act was handled only to make a guest feel comfortable and safe upon his return to Vietnam. The repercussions were not anticipated as the Bishop was not an official representative of the Communist Government of Vietnam.

Despite learning the facts of the Bishop’s visit, the protests continued and eventually led to Joseph Pham resigning his board membership from the Vietnamese Educational Foundation, so as not to let his own predicament tarnish the project’s mission or the administration. He endured slander, even from in-laws and former friends, and his business suffered until he decided to close and lease the space to a nail salon.

The jury agreed with Pham that since the defendants knew that Pham was not and a communist and that the flag incident with the Bishop’s visit was not contrived to make a statement against the Republic of Vietnam or its symbols, yet they continued to destroy his reputation and business with “actual malice” for improper reasons.

Pham planed to use the award damages to build two Buddhist schools and one Catholic school in his native Vietnam. The Vietnamese American community leaders have since expressed concern that this issue not act to divide the community.

(This article was put together with recent news releases and a collection of news articles on the topic written for Asian American Press since 2005).

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