Morris & Stone Case Creates Important Internet Defamation Authority

Super hero with computer circuit

Internet Defamation Law Clarified

Morris & Stone is proud to announce that righteous Internet defamation cases will now be easier to prove, due to a Court of Appeal opinion resulting from one of our cases.

I was brought in as co-counsel to first chair a trial in Santa Cruz, representing an attorney we will refer to as “Esquire”. In addition to her legal practice, Esquire had a business on the side, which was based in some warehouse space. A few years into Esquire’s lease, the warehouse was purchased by someone we will call “Painter”, making Painter Esquire’s landlord.

The problem was, Painter wanted the entire warehouse for his own use, so he made a buy-out offer to Esquire. But Esquire liked the space, and turned down the offer.

Then began what Esquire saw as a harassment campaign, designed to get her to move out. The harassment included fights over parking and jack hammering during business hours. Ultimately, Esquire was forced to go to court to get an injunction against Painter to stop some of the behavior.

The same day the injunction was issued, Esquire received her first negative Yelp review, which was followed by two more. It was clear the reviews were false, because they accused Esquire of poorly performing services that her company did not even offer. By subpoening records from Yelp and then the Internet Service providers, Esquire confirmed that one of the reviews had been posted from Painter’s business account, and two had been posted from his home account.

Judge Ariadne Symons

Esquire sued Painter for breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment as to her lease, and for defamation for the fraudulent Yelp reviews. Painter cross-complained for breach of lease. The trial was assigned to Judge Ariadne Symons, who by her own admission was probably not the best choice for this case, confessing that she knew nothing about the internet and computers.

At commencement of trial, the defense took one look at our trial brief, and immediately dismissed the cross-complaint, leaving for trial only our complaint against Painter. Unfortunately, Judge Symons’ fundamental misunderstanding of the rules of evidence, both as to what is necessary to admit documents posted on the internet, and as to indirect evidence and inferences, led to the exclusion of all of our defamation evidence. Judge Symons simply did not understand some basic evidentiary principles, dealing with the authentication of web postings and indirect evidence.

How to Authenticate Yelp Reviews

For example, to authenticate a review posted on Yelp, all that is required is a witness (usually the client) who can testify that the copy of the review being offered as evidence is an accurate depiction of what the witness saw when he or she visited the Yelp site. This does not mean that you can introduce anything you find on the Internet as proof of whatever it says, it means only that pursuant to Evidence Code section 1552, a witness can testify that “this is the review I saw posted on Yelp,” and that review becomes admissible as to its existence. Although we provided very clear authority, Judge Symons erroneously ruled that a representative of Yelp must be present to authenticate the existence of the reviews.

The Law of Indirect Evidence

Then there was the issue of the indirect evidence. We had the defendant dead to rights as the party who had posted the fraudulent reviews, because the IP information showed that the reviews had been posted from defendant’s home and office internet accounts. In an internet defamation case, unless the defendant confesses to posting the reviews, you can never prove unequivocally that the defendant’s fingers typed the reviews, but the jury is permitted to make the reasonable inference that defendant posted the reviews if they were posted from his account (on the very day that plaintiff has successfully sued defendant in court on another matter). But despite all the authority we provided to the contrary, Judge Symons erroneously held that indirect evidence was not admissible. An appeal was necessary to reverse all of the evidentiary errors by Judge Symons.

As anticipated, the Court of Appeal for the Sixth District found in favor of Esquire on the evidentiary rulings, and reversed the trial court. It took Judge Symons to task, referring to her conclusions as “perplexing”. More important for the legal community at large, the Court of Appeal used the opportunity to provide a very detailed explanation to all trial courts as to the admissibility of information posted on the internet, as well as the proper determination of the admissibility of indirect evidence.

In a perfect world, Judge Symons would have followed the authority we provided, and our case would have proceeded directly to verdict. But we take solace in the fact that even though the case was delayed and will now have to go back for a new trial (in front of a different judge), that detour served to create a precedential blueprint for all judges and attorneys to follow in future internet defamation cases.

Judge Symons has been moved to Family Court.

For a detailed discussion of this important opinion, click on the play button beneath the image, for the California SLAPP Law Podcast.

Yelp Ordered to Remove Defamatory Posts

False Yelp Review

As I have stated here many times, although wrongdoers have been able to use it as a shield, the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) is an essential statute if we want to live in a country where one can freely offer their opinions about products and businesses.

But I have also argued for a simple fix to the abuses of the CDA. If someone posts a defamatory review on Yelp, the CDA prevents any legal action against Yelp; only the person who posted the comment is liable for the defamatory comments. Fair enough. If Yelp could be made to research every review the subject of that review claims is defamatory, it could not exist, and the process of finding a good sushi restaurant would be made far more difficult.

But would it be so burdensome to require Yelp to take down a review, AFTER a court has determined that review to be false and defamatory? It is a long and arduous journey to take a case to trial and prove that a review is defamatory. There would be very few judgments coming out the other side of that process, and hence very few posts Yelp would need to take down. Indeed, Yelp should embrace such an approach, because it claims to want only legitimate reviews. If after presentation of evidence, a court has determined that a review posted on Yelp is false, Yelp should be thrilled that a false review was rooted out and jump to remove it.

The CDA is a necessary evil, but it makes no conceptual sense that after the person who posted the comment has been found to be liable for defamation, that the post can remain, still damaging the reputation of the plaintiff. At least in the case of Yelp, the court can order the defendant to remove the post, and the defendant has the ability to do so, but what about sites like Rip Off Report, where the site prevents the defendant from removing his own post? I have long called for a mechanism to force sites to remove defamatory posts after a court has found them to be so.

Finally, a Court in San Francisco apparently heard my plea, and entered a judgment ordering Yelp to take down a post. The conventional wisdom has always been (1) you can’t get a court to order an injunction against Yelp since it is not a party to the action, and (2) obtaining such an order would violate the CDA, because is somehow amounts to finding liability against Yelp.

But I have long railed against that conventional wisdom. Continue reading

How to Stop Defamation When You Can’t Afford an Attorney

Bankruptcy - Business Person holding an empty wallet

Is there a way to stop Internet defamation when you have limited funds to hire an attorney?

Here’s a call I get a few times a week. Someone somewhere has managed to upset someone else, usually over a miscommunication. Alternatively, it will be an ex-boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse that feels they were done wrong. The offended party responds to the perceived offense by going onto various social networking sites and posting false, defamatory statements; Facebook is a popular choice for the vitriol. The victim of these accusations wants my assistance in getting the statements taken down.

I can do that, but at a cost. And while I sometimes take a case on a contingency basis (receiving a percentage of the amount recovered), most of the time such an arrangement is not workable since the primary goal of the action is to remove the defamatory materials, not for damages. An attorney cannot take a case on a contingency basis if there are no damages or if the defendant has no ability to pay. Indeed, in many instances an attorney should not take a defamation case on a contingency basis since that will then make the case about money instead of being about solutions.

Is there a solution for those who can’t afford representation? Continue reading

California Prohibits “You Can’t Review Me” Contracts

no criticism contractsFrom my recollection, doctors were the first to try this nonsense. They would slip in a provision in all the intake paperwork, stating that the patient agrees not to post any negative reviews about the doctor, with a $500 penalty if the patient violates the clause.

These contract clauses gained more and more popularity. I came across one in the repair estimate I received from my Ford dealership.

Occasionally, I would receive a call from a doctor or some other business, asking me to write a letter to a customer, demanding that they take down a review based on such a contract clause. I was happy to demand removal if the posting was defamatory, but I would not agree to use the clause as a basis, because I found them so offensive.

Apparently the California Legislature found them offensive as well, and created Civil Code section 1670.8. This section makes it ILLEGAL to include one of these “you can’t review me” provisions in any contract. If a business includes such a provision in a contract, it can be hit with a penalty of up to $2,500, and $5,000 for each subsequent violation, even if it never seeks to enforce the provision.

If you encounter a contract with “you can’t review me” language, then contact me immediately. I’d love to take these to court.

Here is section 1670.8 in its entirety:

1670.8. (a) (1) A contract or proposed contract for the sale or lease of consumer goods or services may not include a provision waiving the consumer’s right to make any statement regarding the seller or lessor or its employees or agents, or concerning the goods or services.

(2) It shall be unlawful to threaten or to seek to enforce a provision made unlawful under this section, or to otherwise penalize a consumer for making any statement protected under this section.

(b) Any waiver of the provisions of this section is contrary to public policy, and is void and unenforceable.

(c) Any person who violates this section shall be subject to a civil penalty not to exceed two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500) for the first violation, and five thousand dollars ($5,000) for the second and for each subsequent violation, to be assessed and collected in a civil action brought by the consumer, by the Attorney General, or by the district attorney or city attorney of the county or city in which the violation occurred. When collected, the civil penalty shall be payable, as appropriate, to the consumer or to the general fund of whichever governmental entity brought the action to assess the civil penalty.

(d) In addition, for a willful, intentional, or reckless violation of this section, a consumer or public prosecutor may recover a civil penalty not to exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000).

(e) The penalty provided by this section is not an exclusive remedy, and does not affect any other relief or remedy provided by law. This section shall not be construed to prohibit or limit a person or business that hosts online consumer reviews or comments from removing a statement that is otherwise lawful to remove.

Bill Cosby Sues Beverly Johnson for Defamation

“Bill Cosby filed a lawsuit Monday against supermodel Beverly Johnson, alleging she lied when she said the comedian drugged and tried to rape her at his New York home in the mid-1980s.

Cosby’s lawsuit says Johnson joined other women making accusations against him to revive her waning career and to help sell copies of her memoir.

The lawsuit alleges defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, saying Cosby and Johnson never spent any time alone in his house, he never drugged her and ‘her story is a lie.'”

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.wmur.com

 

In an earlier discussion of Bill Cosby, I mentioned the problem of coming out and denying claims made by an accuser.

In the case of Bill Cosby, several women have come forward telling similar tales. Specifically, they allege that Cosby would drug and then rape them. Even though the statute of limitations on those alleged offenses may long have passed, Cosby affords those women with a potential cause of action if he comes out and denies the claims. By denying the claims, he is in essence calling them liars, which triggers a potential defamation action.

This action is the flip side of that coin. Cosby, of course, has the ability to sue for defamation, claiming that the accusations are false and defamatory. But this strategy comes at a cost. This lawsuit is against Beverly Johnson, but other women are making the same claim. Are we then to assume that the claims by the other women are not defamatory?

As the saying goes, “in for a dime, in for a dollar.” Cosby has now created a scenario whereby he must sue all of his accusers, lest he be viewed as being guilty of the claims by those he doesn’t sue.

James Woods Demands Court Order To ID Twitter User Who Called Him A “Cocaine Addict”

Actor James Woods says a Twitter user who called him a “cocaine addict” has no right to demand anonymity.

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.buzzfeed.com

The James Woods case presents a good illustration of the legal process and certain constitutional rights.

Someone on Twitter, using the pseudonym “Abe List” or AL for short, got into it with Woods, and let fly with a series of put-downs, referring to Woods as a Joke, clown-boy and scum. Counsel for Woods understood defamation law well enough to know that those claims are not offered as verifiable facts, and therefore cannot be defamatory.

But AL also called Woods a “cocaine addict”, and that is where his counsel drew the line. They filed what is called a DOE action, suing an unknown defendant for defamation. (Here is the actual complaint.) Once a DOE action is filed, the plaintiff can then subpoena the records (here, from Twitter) to determine the identity of the anonymous poster.

Here’s where things get interesting.

What many do not realize is that someone posting comments on the Internet has a constitutional right to remain anonymous. It hearkens back to the days of “pamphleteering”, when those disagreeing with the government would produce and distribute anonymous pamphlets. If the government could require that the identity of protesters be known, it could intimidate critics into silence.

Because of this constitutional right, if someone wishes to remain anonymous, they can oppose the motion anonymously, forcing the plaintiff to make a sufficient showing that the speech is defamatory, and therefore not entitled to protection.

That is just what occurred here. AL has gone to court and challenged Woods’ right to discover his identity.

“How do you appear anonymously in a court proceeding?”, you ask. It’s easy. You retain counsel, usually Morris & Stone, who moves to quash the subpoena on behalf of the person, using the pseudonym. The identity of the person is never revealed. (In a couple of cases, we have seen other counsel attempt this procedure, only to make the effort pointless when they accidentally identify their client in correspondence.) Continue reading

Lying blogger ordered to pay $3.5 million in defamation lawsuit | PersonalInjury.com

A Shelby County, Alabama, blogger, who spent five months in jail before agreeing to remove stories from his website about the son of a former governor, has now been ordered to pay $3.5 million in a defamation lawsuit filed by a former campaign manager for the state Attorney General.
The blogger had written about an fictional affair between the attorney general and the campaign manager. 

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.personalinjury.com

Yes, even  bloggers are subject to defamation laws.

I encounter a common belief that anything published on the Internet is somehow protected free speech. In fact, it is protected free speech until one steps over the line into defamatory speech. Defamatory speech enjoys no protection.

Of note in this case, the blogger spent five months in jail for his defamation. Not because he defamed, but because he refused to stop defaming. You see, a court cannot order you not to publish information that you want to publish, but once that information has been found to be defamatory, then the court can order you never to tell the same lies again, and can order you to remove the lies from the Internet.

In this case, the blogger was ordered after trial to remove the defamatory comments, but refused to do so. He even added more information. This amounted to contempt, and the court put him in jail until he removed the statements. He stood on his purported principles for five months, and then relented and had his wife remove the posts.

Court tosses lawyer’s libel suit over ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’

TORONTO – Ontario’s top court has tossed a defamation action by a lawyer over a book in which he is cited as saying he identified with the Mexican bandit from the movie “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”

In a written ruling Monday, the Court of Appeal sided with a lower court judge, who rejected the action from David Midanik against Betsy Powell in October last year, and ordered him to pay more than $100,000 in legal costs.

“In our view, this defamation action was ill-conceived,” the Appeal Court said.

Source: metronews.ca

Two lessons from this Canadian case. First, consider whether your colorful writing style is going to get you into trouble, and second that context is everything.

In this case, a lawyer penned a book about some of his legal experiences. He wrote about a case he prosecuted against a Toronto street gang, and stated that one of the defense attorneys was like Tuco Ramirez, a character from the film “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” He paraphrased a line from the character, “I like big men because they fall hard.”

The defense lawyer in question took offense at this comment, and sued for defamation. He argued that by equating him with Tuco Ramirez, the author implied that he was a murderer, rapist, dishonest and sleazy.

The case was doomed to failure, both legally and conceptually.

When one quotes from a fictional character, that does not mean or even imply that the quote is meant to pull in all the traits of the character in question. If I’m doing a hockey story, and I show a player making a slap shot, with the caption, “Say hello to my little friend,” am I implying that the hockey player is a drug lord?

The trial court and Court of Appeal agreed with my interpretation, and dismissed the case. Under Canadian law, the loser pays, so this ill-conceived case (the court’s words) cost the thin-skinned attorney about 100,000 Canadian dollars, eh.

Firefighter pictured in sex scandal article loses libel claims against Daily News, appeals | Pennsylvania Record

Per the order of a federal judge, the libel lawsuit brought by a Philadelphia firefighter against the New York Daily News earlier this year has been dismissed, though court records indicate he has appealed that verdict.

Source: news.google.com

This was an interesting case that really could have gone either way, and well may be reversed on appeal.

The New York Daily News reported on a sex scandal at the fire department, and the article included two photographs. The first was a generic stock photo showing firefighters at the scene of a fire, but inexplicably the newspaper chose to use a photo of firefighter Francis Cheney II, taken during a formal 9/11 ceremony. The newspaper’s intent was simply to use Cheney as a representation of a firefighter, but a casual reader could easily draw the conclusion that he was one of the firefighters involved in the sex scandal.

I would have anticipated that the defamation claim he filed would fail, but he also filed a claim for false light invasion of privacy, and that claim certainly had some merit.

Here is the jury instruction for false light (in California):

1802. False Light

[Name of plaintiff] claims that [name of defendant] violated [his/her] right to privacy. To establish this claim, [name of plaintiff] must prove all of the following:

1. That [name of defendant] publicized information or material that showed [name of plaintiff] in a false light;

2. That the false light created by the publication would be highly offensive to a reasonable person in [name of plaintiff]’s position;

3. [That there is clear and convincing evidence that [name of defendant] knew the publication would create a false impression about [name of plaintiff] or acted with reckless disregard for the truth;]

[or]

[That [name of defendant] was negligent in determining the truth of the information or whether a false impression would be created by its publication;]

4. [That [name of plaintiff] was harmed; and]

[or]

[That [name of plaintiff] sustained harm to [his/her] property, business, profession, or occupation [including money spent as a result of the statement(s)]; and]

5. That [name of defendant]’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing [name of plaintiff]’s harm.

[In deciding whether [name of defendant] publicized the information or material, you should determine whether it was made public either by communicating it to the public at large or to so many people that the information or material was substantially certain to become public knowledge.]

Defamation is an intentional tort, but false light can be established with a showing of negligence. A jury could certainly find that it is negligent to post a picture of a random firefighter in an article about a sex scandal, and that an average reader might assume that the firefighter must in some way be involved with the scandal.

But the judge in Pennsylvania disagreed, and threw out all of Cheney’s claims. The judge found that the photo provided sufficient context such that a reader would know that no link between the photo of Cheney and the sex scandal was intended.

This is an important factor in any defamation (or false light) claim. The fact that a statement or photo can be interpreted in a defamatory sense is not enough. The statement must be given a reasonable interpretation.

Daily Mail publisher loses challenge to JK Rowling ruling

Associated Newspapers objected to parts of the statement that the author plans to read in open court as part of the settlement of her libel claim

Source: www.theguardian.com

In California, if a plaintiff wants to sue a newspaper (or radio station) for defamation, the plaintiff must first demand a retraction. If no such demand is made, then the plaintiff is limited to special damages (the actual damages that flow from the defamation. Failing to demand a retraction can kill the action, because it is often the case that no actual damages can be shown. If the demand is made, the newspaper can avoid any award for general damages by printing a retraction.

Here is the statute in its entirety, Civil Code section 48a:

Required Retraction Demand

1. In any action for damages for the publication of a libel in a newspaper, or of a slander by radio broadcast, plaintiff shall recover no more than special damages unless a correction be demanded and be not published or broadcast, as hereinafter provided.  Plaintiff shall serve upon the publisher, at the place of publication or broadcaster at the place of broadcast, a written notice specifying the statements claimed to be libelous and demanding that the same be corrected.  Said notice and demand must be served within 20 days after knowledge of the publication or broadcast of the statements claimed to be libelous.

2. If a correction be demanded within said period and be not published or broadcast in substantially as conspicuous a manner in said newspaper or on said broadcasting station as were the statements claimed to be libelous, in a regular issue thereof published or broadcast within three weeks after such service, plaintiff, if he pleads and proves such notice, demand and failure to correct, and if his cause of action be maintained, may recover general, special and exemplary damages;  provided that no exemplary damages may be recovered unless the plaintiff shall prove that defendant made the publication or broadcast with actual malice and then only in the discretion of the court or jury, and actual malice shall not be inferred or presumed from the publication or broadcast.

3. A correction published or broadcast in substantially as conspicuous a manner in said newspaper or on said broadcasting station as the statements claimed in the complaint to be libelous, prior to receipt of a demand therefor, shall be of the same force and effect as though such correction had been published or broadcast within three weeks after a demand therefor.

4. As used herein, the terms “general damages,” “special damages,” “exemplary damages” and “actual malice,” are defined as follows:

(a) “General damages” are damages for loss of reputation, shame, mortification and hurt feelings;

(b) “Special damages” are all damages which plaintiff alleges and proves that he has suffered in respect to his property, business, trade, profession or occupation, including such amounts of money as the plaintiff alleges and proves he has expended as a result of the alleged libel, and no other;

(c) “Exemplary damages” are damages which may in the discretion of the court or jury be recovered in addition to general and special damages for the sake of example and by way of punishing a defendant who has made the publication or broadcast with actual malice;

(d) “Actual malice” is that state of mind arising from hatred or ill will toward the plaintiff;  provided, however, that such a state of mind occasioned by a good faith belief on the part of the defendant in the truth of the libelous publication or broadcast at the time it is published or broadcast shall not constitute actual malice.

You can still sue a newspaper for defamation even if you don’t demand a retraction within 20 days, but failing to do so limits any damage recover to “special damages”. In many cases, special damages are not worth pursuing, since they consist primarily of loss of income. Under proper circumstances, special damages can be significant (we recently won $1.5 million dollars of special damages for a client), but in most cases the plaintiff will have a hard time proving that specific business was lost because of the newspaper article.

Across the pond, they have a similar process, but with a couple of twists. The newspaper must print an apology, and if it does so, the plaintiff cannot recover any damages unless he, she or it can show that the article was printed with malice.

The dust up between Rowling and the Daily Mail arose from an online article in which the paper claimed an article written by Rowling about her time as a single mother in Scotland was a misleading “sob story”. The Daily Mail subsequently published an apology to Rowing, in which it accepted that Rowling made no false claims in the article and said that it had paid her “substantial damages”, which she was donating to charity.

But then Rowling announced she was going to read a statement in open court, stating that the Daily Mail had falsely accused her of being dishonest. The Daily Mail felt that was inappropriate, and unsuccessfully sought to block Rowling’s statement.

I can appreciate the newspaper’s frustration. The apology procedure is designed to undo the defamation, and to that end, the paper published an apology and paid a substantial settlement. If Rowling can now go to court and come up with her own characterization of what was said, which will then be reported by all the media, she is afforded the means to now damage the newspaper, even though she accepted the settlement.

For example, let’s say a newspaper publishes that you cheat customers. You demand a retraction, and the newspaper prints an apology stating that you never cheated customers, and pays you money. Now you call the media to court, and state on the record that the newspaper has apologized for saying you cheated on your taxes. The newspaper never said you cheated on your taxes, it might indeed believe that you do cheat on your taxes, and yet it is put in a bad light that goes beyond the original claim that you cheat customers, since the impression is now that the newspaper also apologized for a tax remark.

The newspaper’s position was that it never said Rowling was dishonest, and that Rowling should not be able to claim that it did, or that it apologized.

 

Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP

Tustin Financial Plaza
17852 17th St., Suite 201
Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

Email Aaron Morris

View Aaron Morris, Trial Attorney and Partner at Morris & Stone, with emphasis on Free Speech and Defamation Law.

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