I present now a fascinating case that serves to illustrate a couple of points about Internet defamation. We’ll call this one the Girl in the Red Bikini.
Enter the Fayette County School District in Georgia. School District administrators decided it would be a good idea to warn their high school students about the dangers of posting photographs on social sites such as Facebook. They came up with a presentation with the theme, “once it’s there, its there to stay.” A perfectly valid message to teach the high schoolers.
But then they did something strange. They decided that to really drive home the point, the presentation needed embarrassing photos posted by current students. They snooped around on their students’ Facebook pages to find what they considered illustrative examples of the poor choices being made by their students.
One photo they decided was a good illustration was a photo of student Chelsea Chaney. Ms. Chaney had dared to post a picture of her standing beside a cardboard cut-out of the artist formerly know as Snoop Dogg (he now goes by Snoop Lion in case you missed the memo). Snoop (or, rather, his cardboard cut-out) is holding a can of something. I really can’t identify it from the photo. It could be a beer but it could just as easily be an energy drink. Worse, though, in the minds of the Fayette County School District, Ms, Chaney was wearing a bikini. Put those facts together, and you have what is obviously a very embarrassing photo that never should have been posted, apparently because it shows public drunkeness and promiscuity, at least in the warped minds of the District.
In reality, the photo was entirely innocent and implied nothing. (Obviously Ms. Chaney was not happy that the photo was posted so I won’t republish it, but it is already published here.) But imagine the shock of Chaney, seeing her photo come up on the screen at a school assembly, used as an example of poor choices. She didn’t think that was very cool, and is now suing the school district.
So what are the takeaways from this case (aside from not going to school in Fayette County)? The school district was idiotic to create this presentation, but it does serve to illustrate that the photos you post can have very unforeseen consequences, even if they aren’t inappropriate. Also, this is yet another example of the Barbara Streisand Effect. Chaney was justifiably embarrassed and angry that the photo was posted, but whereas before only her schoolmates saw it, now she has made it a topic of discussion all over the Internet. That may be a price she is willing to pay in order to combat this behavior, but just be aware that any action can fan the very flames you were hoping to extinguish.
The scenario is almost always the same. A girlfriend (foolishly if you ask me) provides some naked photos to her boyfriend, and when they break up, he posts them on the Internet as a form of revenge. I’m not being sexist here. Either because guys are just not as generous about providing naked pictures, or because ex-girlfriends at least have the couth not to post them, I have never received a call from a male complaining that his ex is posting naked pictures of him.
We have been successful in the past in getting the photos taken down by pursuing actions for infliction of emotional distress, and sometimes even copyright infringement. Guys who post naked pictures of their ex-girlfriends are usually not Rhodes Scholars, but even they can figure out that going to court and arguing that there is nothing wrong with that behavior is probably not a bright idea. Faced with a lawsuit, the pictures usually come down.
Now California has made by job easier by providing even greater incentive. These miscreants who engage in this form of “revenge porn” now face jail time and fines under a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. They face up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000.
The bill that Brown signed into law on October 2, 2013, takes effect immediately.
In a ruling that makes perfect sense, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that an anti-SLAPP motion can be used to excise some allegations in a cause of action that involve protected activities, while leaving intact those allegations that do not fall under the statute.
In Cho v. Chang (LASC case number B239719), Jessica Chang sued a former co-worker, Howard Cho, for sexual assault and harassment. Chang filed a cross-complaint that was a clear SLAPP, because the two causes of action alleged defamation and infliction of emotional distress based on the things Chang had said about Cho to her employer, EEOC and DFEH. As I have said here many time, statements to government entities are protected, and the statements to the employer are a natural part of the redress process, and therefore are also protected.
But wait a second. The cross-complaint also alleged that the statements by Chang to her co-workers were defamatory. In some circumstances statements to co-workers can be protected, and indeed that was the argument made by Chang, but here the connection was too attenuated. As the court stated,
“Chang argues that her comments to co-workers related to matters of ‘public interest,’ but that is without merit. A public interest involves more than mere curiosity or private information communicated to a small number of people; it concerns communications to a substantial number of people and some connection with the public interest rather than a private controversy.”
So, if the allegations about the statements to co-workers state a valid action for defamation and infliction of emotional distress, must that baby be thrown out with the bath water just because it is contained in the same cause of action that include protected speech? Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson, and the Court of Appeal, answered “no” to that question. They both determined that an anti-SLAPP motion could be used surgically to remove just the allegations of protected activities and speech, while leaving any cognizable claims.
Nonetheless, the anti-SLAPP motion was successful, at least in part, so did Chang recover her attorney fees? In that regard, Judge Johnson was not very charitable. The judge noted that a party prevailing on an anti-SLAPP motion is normally entitled to an award of attorney fees, but said:
“While Chang’s motion has been granted in part, the ruling has produced nothing of consequence. Cho is still entitled to pursue his causes of action for defamation and [intentional infliction of emotional distress], and the evidence to be presented at trial is largely the same. Chang should have been aware that Cho’s allegations about private comments were viable, and she should have addressed the other allegations in a more focused and less burdensome manner (such as a traditional motion to strike or a motion in limine). Chang’s request for an award of fees and costs is denied.”
I get probably two calls a month from potential clients, complaining that after they refused to subscribe to Yelp’s services, Yelp responded by removing most or all of their positive reviews. If true, then Yelp cannot seriously contend that it is interested in the integrity of its reviews.
The claims seem supported by a recent action by Yelp. In this case, a small San Diego law firm, the McMillan Law Group, subscribed to Yelp’s services, allegedly based on representations that were made about the number of page views it would receive. When the results fell below what the McMillan Law Group says was promised, it demanded a refund. Yelp balked, and the law firm sued in small claims court. The firm prevailed, and obtained a $2,700 judgment against Yelp.
“The McMillan Law Group, a San Diego law firm specializing in bankruptcy, exemplifies the behavior that Yelp combats daily through its algorithms and investigations—the planting of fake reviews intended to sway potential clients with false testimonials. The McMillan Law Group’s efforts to mislead consumers are particularly brazen and disappointing given they have targeted some of the most vulnerable consumers of all—individuals who may be facing bankruptcy and who are looking for potential legal representation.”
In the complaint, Yelp details its investigative results, alleging that multiple Yelp user accounts were created from a computer located at the same McMillan Law Group IP address used to create reviews about that law firm.
In an interview with Bloomberg Law, Julian McMillan stated, “It’s bullying tactics. I get it. They want me to spend some money but I just don’t see how they come a winner in this [from a PR standpoint].”
As McMillan also notes, Yelp’s lawsuit seems like a really bone-headed move from a discovery standpoint. Since Yelp is claiming that false reviews by the McMillan Law Group have interfered with its contractual relations and caused it damages, it has now made all of its business practices and income fair game for discovery. It will also be very interesting to learn whether Yelp routinely brings such lawsuits to maintain the integrity of its reviews, or does so only in response to being sued.
For a detailed discussion of the love fest between Yelp and the McMillan Law Group, see the article at Bloomberg Law.
Our neighbors to the North are very American-like, until you get to issues of free speech. Most view Canada as the “least protective of free speech in the English-speaking world.” Reasonable minds can differ on some of Canada’s laws, such as prohibiting the media from identifying criminals until they have been convicted, but most of the law is still based on policies designed to prevent any criticism of the government. Canadians can be held liable by English-Canadian courts for comments on public affairs, about public figures, which are factually true, and which are broadly believed.
A recent parody video posted on You Tube illustrates just how lacking the concept of free speech is in Canada. The video is a fake cable company ad posted by Extremely Decent Films. It does not mention any cable company by name, and indeed it is specifically directed at American cable companies. Nonetheless, someone lodged a complaint in Canada, and that was sufficient to scare You Tube into removing the video, given the vagaries of Canada’s libel laws (although the video has since been reposted in response to articles such as this one).
In December, David Hester filed a lawsuit against A&E Television Networks alleging that producers of Storage Wars rigged the reality-television series by salting storage lockers with valuable items before they were auctioned off to buyers. The producers deny the claim, pointing out that they have no access to the lockers before they are sold, but it could be that they are adding the items with the assistance of the buyers, after the purchase, to make the show more entertaining. After all, if the show was nothing but lockers full of expired National Geographic magazines, that would get boring fast. But I digress.
According to his lawsuit, Hester was told that his contract would be renewed for season four, but after complaining about the “fraud” that was being perpetrated on the viewers, he was told his services would no longer be required. He sued A&E and another entity for wrongful termination (huh?), breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith, unfair business practices, and declaratory relief.
Lesson 1: For every wrong, there is not necessarily a remedy.
Some attorneys just never get this. If I hire you for my television show, and I have the contractual right not to renew that contract at some point in the future, and you do something I don’t like, such as telling me you don’t like the way I am running the show that I’m paying you $750,000 to be on, then I just may decide not to keep you around. You are not some bastion for the public, given the task of making sure my show is pure. All reality shows are faked to some extent, and the viewers all know they are faked (although, incredibly, I did once run into a guy who thinks Ghost Hunters is totally legit).
It may stink that Hester got “fired” for wanting to keep the show honest, but if he wanted to make sure he never got fired for criticizing the show, the he should have added a “you may not fire me when I tell you your show stinks” clause to his contract.
Lesson 2: A faked reality show is an expression of free speech.
Can you sue Stephen King when you find out Pet Sematary [sic] is not based on reality? Then why did Hester and his counsel think they could sue A&E for its fictional Storage Wars? Not surprisingly, A&E’s attorneys asked the same question in the form of an anti-SLAPP motion. The motion was a no-brainer, because it involves a free speech issue of public interest, bringing it within the anti-SLAPP statute, and there was zero chance of Hester prevailing on at least one or more of his causes of action, so the second element was a lock. As I have explained many times here, a SLAPP suit will often make no mention of defamation or any other obviously SLAPPable claim, but nonetheless will be a SLAPP.
Lesson 3: Betting wrong on a SLAPP can be very expensive since some courts continue to rubber-stamp huge fee applications.
There is case authority for the proposition that if a court finds that a fee application on an anti-SLAPP motion was inflated, it can deny fees altogether, but I have yet to see a court follow the rule. In one case, I was brought in to challenge a fee application, and persuaded the court to knock off about 40% of the hours that were requested by the attorney who had successfully brought the anti-SLAPP motion. When the court stated in was reducing the fees by that amount, I reminded it of the authority that it could deny the fees altogether since defense counsel had been caught padding the bill. The judge responded, “Padding, what padding? I did not see any padding.” Well your honor, if the hours were all legitimate, then you should have awarded the full amount. But since you agreed with me that 40% of the time was inappropriate, then I would describe that as padding.
I have not reviewed the invoices for the anti-SLAPP motion in this case, nor do I know what other activities if any followed the original anti-SLAPP motion (for example, the plaintiff will sometimes request permission to conduct discovery following the motion and that takes time), so I offer no opinion on whether the time spent was appropriate. In the end, even after reducing the attorney fees requested by defense counsel, the attorney fees awarded still exceeded $120,000.
Former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones won her defamation lawsuit against the gossip website TheDirty.com on Thursday in federal court, winning an award of $338,000. Whether she will ever collect any money is a different issue, but some see the decision as groundbreaking since the Plaintiff got around the Communications Decency Act.
Jones, 28, sued in 2009 after TheDirty.com published comments alleging she had slept with all of the Bengals, and had sexually transmitted diseases. The first trial ended in a deadlock, when the jurors were unable to unanimously agree whether the posts about Jones having sex with all the Bengals players and likely having sexually transmitted diseases were substantially false.
The case caught the attention of defamation attorneys after U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman ruled the website was not shielded from liability by the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. Many thought the ruling was a departure from all other rulings protecting website operators who use third-party content, and no doubt you will see this case reported as the first chink in the CDA’s armor, but I’ll explain why it is nothing new.
Whomever posts a defamatory comment on a website is always liable for the posting. The CDA protects a website operator from liability for third-party postings, but the website operator is still liable for his own postings, and that was the case here. The “shtick” of TheDirty is for visitors to post horrible comments about people, and the host, Nik Richie, then throws in his two cents worth. It was Richie who commented that Jones had slept with every player on the team, so of course he can be held liable for his own comments.
As evidenced by the first mistrial, on a different day with a different jury, the result could have been very different, and this could very well be reversed on appeal. As I have stated here many times, context is everything. A statement is only defamatory if it is offered as a true fact as opposed to being a joke or satire. When Richie makes the claim that Jones has slept with every player on the team, how would he be in a position to know that, and can it really be taken as a true statement that she slept with EVERY player on the team?
Complicating the matter is Jones’ history. I wrote here about the cannibal who sued because he was called a thief. It’s hard to argue that you have lost reputation for being falsely accused of being a thief when you are an admitted cannibal. Here, plaintiff is same Sarah Jones who gained national attention as a teacher for her dalliances with an under-aged student, for which she was sentenced to two years in prison (suspended).
It is never defamation to report a fact, even if that fact is that a person was charged with a crime they did not commit. I understand why callers sometimes don’t understand this distinction. The completely innocent caller was falsely arrested, so it seems like a newspaper that reports the arrest is somehow making a false statement that the caller committed a crime. But look closer, caller. The paper did not report that you committed the crime, the paper reported that you were ARRESTED for the crime. Truth is an absolute defense to any defamation claim, and it is true that you were arrested.
What I don’t understand is how so many attorneys miss this point and pursue doomed defamation claims for their clients.
A recent example of this that caught my eye is a case out of Nevada. As reported by the Las Vegas Sun, the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche was hired to perform an audit of a company called Global Cash Access Holdings, Inc., which is a publicly traded company that provided cash access services to the Nevada gaming industry.
The accounting firm uncovered information from an FBI bulletin which claimed that the two men who founded the company – Robert Cucinotta and Karim Maskatiya – were involved in criminal activity. As they were required to do by law, Deloitte & Touche disclosed this information to the audit committee. Cucinotta and Maskatiya were not happy with this disclosure, and felt it amounted to defamation because they were never convicted of any crimes and there was no evidence that they did anything criminal. They sued Deloitte & Touche, claiming that the disclosure cost the company $400 million in market capitalization and cost them $100 million personally.
But can you see why the comments by Deloitte & Touche were not actionable defamation? The accounting firm simply reported information that was contained in the FBI bulletin, as it was required by law to do. Certainly if those allegations against two principals of the company proved to be true it would greatly impact the value of the company, so that information was quite properly reported.
The Nevada Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Michael Cherry, said, “We agree with our sister jurisdictions that those who are required by law to publish defamatory statements should be privileged in making such statements.” In this case the court said Deloitte’s communication to the audit committee of the cash access company was required by the federal securities law.
As the old saying goes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?* In the context of defamation law, the saying could be, “if no one knows it’s you, is the statement still defamatory?” The answer is no.
I get a surprising number of calls like this. Now that anyone can publish a book with a few mouse clicks, more people are publishing their life stories, and those stories always manage to irritate someone. That someone then calls me, stating that some person in the book is them, and they want to sue for defamation. They go on to explain that the name given is not theirs, that the geographic location given is someplace they have never lived or visited, and the gender has been changed, but they know it’s them and damn it they want to sue. In some cases it is clear that the caller made the whole thing up in their mind, but in other cases it is clear that the person referenced really is the caller. Even so, if the author changed the identity so much that no one would recognize them, there is no case.
Today’s example involves rocker Sammy Hagar. He wrote a book called “Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock“, which tells a story of a woman he had sex with following a concert, who later claimed to be pregnant. He explains that he paid her some support during the alleged pregnancy, but that no child was ever born and he now thinks the entire thing was simple extortion. Had he named her, that would have supported a claim for defamation since he accuses her of a criminal act, but she is identified only as a “Playboy bunny from California”. Apparently the woman in question was a Playboy bunny, but Hagar changed the state from Michigan to California, perhaps specifically to make her less identifiable.
Nonetheless, the still unidentified “Playboy bunny from California” sued Hagar for defamation and infliction of emotional distress. Not surprisingly, the trial court today threw out the case.
U.S. District Court Judge Linda Reade ruled that Hagar did not defame the woman because he did not refer to her by name in the book – identifying her erroneously as a “Playboy bunny from California” – and the woman did not prove she suffered any financial, reputational or emotional injuries from his statements. Only individuals who already knew about their relationship, not the general public, would have understood Hagar was referring to her in the book, she added.
Although Hagar’s statements in ‘Red’ brought back painful memories for Doe, the evidence does not support a finding that Hagar’s conduct was extreme enough to permit the court to find outrageous conduct sufficient to support Doe’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, Reade wrote.
* It’s a deep thought, but I’ve always thought it was kind of silly because of course a falling tree makes a sound. The laws of physics don’t stop just because no one is there.
I just wish counsel would run their defamation cases past me before filing. Here is a tale of a SLAPP that should have been spotted a mile away.
The tale starts with an article in OC Weekly. The article was about a guy named Shaheen Sadeghi. The article was extremely favorable to Sadeghi, referring to him as the “Curator of Cool” and discussing his amazing success in Orange County. OC Weekly even put his visage on the cover of the paper. Truly, it was a positive article that most would kill for.
But everyone has their detractors, and Sadeghi’s was a woman named Delilah Snell. After disclosing that Snell happens to be the girlfriend of a OC Weekly editor, the article reports on a dustup between Snell and Sadeghi, as told by Snell. Here is what the article said:
Still, some say Sadeghi will do whatever it takes to succeed. Delilah Snell, owner of Road Less Traveled, a shop in Santa Ana that sells environmentally friendly gifts and home goods, met with him in 2008 to discuss an opportunity to move to the Camp. (Full disclosure: Snell is the girlfriend of OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano.) She says the rent rate he gave was way too high, at least triple what she was paying, and she declined the offer. Then, she claims, he made a threat. “He basically said to me, ‘If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business,’” she says.
Snell, co-founder of the Patchwork Indie Arts & Crafts Festival and a pioneer in Orange County’s eco-movement, believes her store is the model for the Camp’s SEED People’s Market, an airy, 12,000-square-foot gallery-type outlet that sells sustainable products and handmade crafts. Sadeghi owns the store with his wife, Linda. Snell claims that SEED has approached many of the vendors featured at Road Less Traveled and even used a photo of her shop in a promotional email sent out to customers. (The Weekly has a copy of the email.)
The article then goes on to tell Sadeghi’s side of the story:
Of Snell’s accusations, Sadeghi responds, “I think she’s full of it.” He says his business plan for SEED was dated “five years before she developed a business plan.”
“It’s a whole different store, whole different vibe,” he says, “and it has nothing to do with Road Less Traveled.”
The article then returns to singing the praises of Sadeghi, providing examples of how he is beloved by his tenants at his business centers like The Lab in Costa Mesa.
Sadeghi sued Snell in Orange County Superior Court, alleging in his complaint that Snell “orally accused Mr. Sadeghi of threatening to copy Ms. Snell’s business idea and plan if Ms. Snell did not move into Plaintiff’s retail center.” Sadeghi then alleged causes of action for slander, slander per se, libel, libel per se, invasion of privacy/false light, intentional interference with economic prospective advantage (sic), negligent interference with economic prospective advantage (sic), unfair competition, and injunctive relief. Whew! All arising from the statements Snell allegedly made to the OC Weekly, claiming that Sadeghi had said “If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business.”
A Quick Aside to Discuss the “Wall of Wrong”.
A potential client will call me, and during the call will tell me about 20 evil deeds committed by the defendant. They have been horribly wronged, and they want to sue. Fair enough, but for a legal action each wrongful deed must be viewed independently to determine if it is actionable. I call the wrongful acts the “Wall of Wrong”, and each wrongful act is an item on that wall. I explain to the client that to determine if there is a case, we must walk up to the wall, take down each item and examine it independently to see if it will support an action. If not, it is tossed away never to be discussed again.
The reason this exercise is so important is because the client has a perception of being slammed by the defendant, and is absolutely convinced that all that wrongdoing must equate to an action, but when all the conduct that does not support the action is stripped away, the client will often see that what is left remaining is pretty petty.
So let’s take Mr. Sadeghi to the Wall of Wrong to see if he has a defamation action. In his case, there are only two items: (1) the claim that he was going to copy Snell’s business, and (2) that he pressured Snell to lease space in his center with the aforesaid threat. Let’s take those items off the shelf one at a time and decide if they will support a suit.
“I will copy your business.”
Sadeghi alleged that he never made this statement. So, is it defamatory to falsely claim that someone said you were going to copy their business? Of course not. It does not accuse Sadeghi of any wrongdoing. As the court put it in granting the anti-SLAPP motion, “Pepsi copies Coke. Gimbel’s Copies Macy’s. This is the nature of business.” Take that statement from the Wall of Wrong and never speak of it again.
Pressuring Snell to lease space.
Is it wrong to pressure someone to lease space? Of course not. Is it wrong to say you will copy their business if they don’t lease space? Let’s consider that one for a moment by using an analogy. Let’s say you have a chain of pizza restaurants, and a landlord comes to you and says, “we really want a pizza place like yours in our center, so we just want you to know that if you don’t lease the space, we’re going to create a pizza place just like yours for our center.”
Anything wrong with that? Sure, he’s pressuring you to rent the space with the threat of opening a competitor if you don’t, but that’s fair. When a landlord is looking for an anchor store in their mall, don’t you think they play Macy’s and Bloomingdale off one another? Take that statement from the Wall of Wrong and never speak of it again.
We are left with nothing to support the action, and it should not have been filed. The trial court was correct in granting the special motion to strike.
A SLAPP is not saved by numerous theories.
The other essential takeaway from this case is that nine causes of action do not a case make if the basis for the action is defective. In other words, if it was not defamatory for Snell to claim that Sadeghi said “If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business,” then those words will not support any other legal theories like intentional infliction of emotional distress or unfair competition.