Case Results

Here is How You Sue the News for Lying

Is that false news really false?

This is another article that callers have compelled me to write, so that I have a resource I can send them to that explains this important point of law.

We begin with Civil Code section 45, which defines libel:

Libel is a false and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.

Thus, as a beginning point, a statement must be verifiably false to be defamatory.

But as the rest of the statute makes clear, falsity is not enough. If I publish an article falsely stating that you own a home in Beverly Hills, I have told a lie about you, but it would not be defamatory or actionable. That is the first point that many people struggle with. They grew up hearing “liar, liar, pants on fire,” and they assume that there must be some remedy against someone who tells a lie. (At a minimum, their pants should combust.)

Such is not the case. Lying about your home in Beverly Hills is not actionable, because that claim does not expose you to “hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.” There is simply nothing wrong with owning a home in Beverly Hills.

Now as is always the case in analyzing statements to see if they are defamatory, context is everything. If you were known as the person who swore off all material possessions in order to live with and assist the homeless, and I publish a story falsely claiming you own a home in Beverly Hills, in that context the statement could be defamatory because it amounts to calling you a liar. But the first step in the analysis is to determine if the statement is false, and whether, if taken as true, the statement would subject you to hatred, contempt, etc.

Next comes the part that is at the heart of the article; the issue of what is false. Continue reading

Yelp Wins Fight to Post False and Defamatory Reviews

hassell v. bird

In reading the California Supreme Court’s decision in Hassell v. Bird, which just came out today, an expression by my father-in-law came to mind. He was a real, honest-to-goodness cowboy, and when asked how things were going, he would often answer, “Well, I’m just stepping in cow dung with one boot and knocking it off with the other.” [He didn’t actually use the word “dung.”]With today’s opinion, Yelp temporarily knocked off some dung, but stepped right back in it.

Hassell v. Bird involved an attorney by the name of Dawn Hassell and her firm the Hassell Law Group. Hassell’s April 2013 complaint arose out of Hassell’s legal representation of a client named Ava Bird for a brief period during the summer of 2012. The complaint alleged the following facts about that representation: Bird met with Hassell in July to discuss a personal injury she had recently sustained. On August 20, Bird signed an attorney-client fee agreement. However, on September 13, 2012, Hassell withdrew from representing Bird because they had trouble communicating with her and she expressed dissatisfaction with them. During the 25 days that Hassell represented Bird, Hassell had at least two communications with Allstate Insurance Company about Bird’s injury claim and notified Bird about those communications via e-mail. Hassell also had dozens of direct communications with Bird by e-mail and phone and at least one in-person meeting. Continue reading

No, I Wasn’t Kidding About the Wisdom of Walking Away

Internet Defamation - Take the Settlement Fool

Just two weeks ago I posted comments on the wisdom of taking a walk-away settlement when you are a defendant with no moral high ground in a defamation action.  I told the story of how the defendant in the case I prosecuted was afforded the opportunity to take down the defamatory comments and walk away without paying any damages, rejected it, and now must pay over $200,000 to my client as a result of his hubris.

You’d think that might have at least given the defendant and his counsel in a different case a moment of pause in the trial that followed two weeks later.  My client sued the defendant, who then filed a frivolous cross-complaint, apparently thinking that would give him some leverage.  The parties had discussed settlement throughout the year-long litigation process, but the defendant had always insisted on money coming his way, and there was no way that was going to happen.

Come the day of trial, the judge conducted one final settlement conference, and my client, knowing the defendant doesn’t have much money anyway, graciously offered to just walk away.  There it was; that same moment in time discussed in my last posting, where the defendant is afforded the opportunity to avoid sending his life, or at the very least his finances, in a bad direction.  But the defendant refused and demanded payment of a ridiculous amount of money on his ridiculous claim.  My client declined.

With no settlement, the case proceeded to trial and I called the defendant as my first witness in a trial that both sides had estimated would last three days.  Two hours into my examination, the judge spontaneously announced that he had heard all he needed to hear, and unless defendant had some “miraculous evidence” he was going to find in favor of my client.  In chambers, he said to defense counsel, “Mr. Morris is very methodically cutting your client to pieces.”  He suggested the parties and attorneys talk settlement again.  My client said fine, and said he would dismiss the action in exchange for defendant paying the same ridiculous amount defendant had been demanding.  Defendant agreed, and we set up a ten year payment schedule, non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  Ouch.

If you got the tie-in between the photo above and the article, give yourself a prize.  It’s from the movie The Road Warrior, and the gentleman in the photo is imploring the people at the oil refinery to “just walk away” and let him and his warriors take the gasoline.  I think I may start dressing like that for settlement conferences.

Morris & Stone Victory — $200,000 from Defendant Who Failed to See Wisdom of Walking Away

Perhaps because the adrenaline and endorphins flow during a courtroom battle, I become very thoughtful in the calm that follows. I won a small but satisfying court victory recently in an Internet defamation case, and it made me realize how much the process mirrors a scene from a movie.

The movie is Taken. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you probably saw the scene to which I refer since it was shown in the trailers. The main character, who we come to learn is some sort of retired Über-spy, is on the phone with his teenage daughter when she is kidnapped. He hears the bad guy pick up the phone, and he calmly gives the following speech:

I don’t know who you are, and I don’t know what you want.
If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money.
But what I do have are a very particular set of skills;
skills I have acquired over a very long career.
Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.
If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it.
But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.

Most every Internet defamation case I handle starts with such a moment. Not nearly so dramatic, of course, and there are no deaths involved if the defendant doesn’t listen to me, but the concept of a choice is the same.

Most of my defamation clients aren’t seeking money initially; they just want the bad guy to stop defaming them. My marching orders are usually just to get the person to take down the false comments. So I write to the bad guy, explaining that this does not need to go any further. He strayed from the path and said and did some things he shouldn’t have, but if he just takes down the posts and walks away, “that will be the end of it.”

That is the moment in time. I am affording the prospective defendant the opportunity to avoid sending his life in a bad direction. I am less of an advocate and more of a caregiver, just trying to convince the patient to stop engaging in self-destructive behavior. But he makes the ultimate decision whether to accept that help, or to continue on his path.

In Taken, the kidnapper could not help himself and responded by saying, “good luck.” He did not take the skill set seriously enough, thinking he would be impossible to find. Today’s defendant also did not take the skill set seriously enough, thinking since he lived across the country we would never pursue him. He was one of a few on-line competitors with my client, and had engaged in some trash-talking that escalated into defamatory comments about my client’s business practices. All he had to do was take down the false statements and walk away and that would have been the end of it. He refused, and today a judge ordered him to take down the false statements, never to make the statements again, at risk of fines and imprisonment, and to pay my client over $200,000.

Pick your battles. I will defend to the death your right to post honest comments on the Internet. If you want to take on a plaintiff that you feel is trying to shake you down, then I’m with you one hundred percent. But don’t get into a court battle just to prove who has the bigger . . . lawyer. The defendant in this case had no moral high ground. He knew what he was saying about my client was untrue, so why on earth wouldn’t he take the opportunity to walk away? As a famous philosopher once sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them.”

Being a member of a group won’t necessarily give you standing for a defamation claim

Another story illustrating the point I make here over and over, namely, that a statement must accuse you of something before it is defamatory.

Today a Federal Court in New York threw out defamation action against Rolling Stone Magazine. Rolling Stone had published an article about a coed named “Jackie” who contended that she had been raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in September 2012.

Three members of that fraternity — George Elias IV, Stephen Hadford and Ross Fowler — sued for defamation, claiming that the article implied that there was an initiation ritual that required new members to rape a coed. The plaintiffs were not named or identified in the article, but since they were members of the fraternity, they alleged that was enough to cause them humiliation and emotional distress.

When the police later investigated, they could find no support for Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone eventually retracted the story.

Claims of this sort are often too attenuated. In the first place, the judge concluded that “Viewed in the overall context of the article, the quotes cannot reasonably be construed to state or imply that the fraternity enforced a rape requirement as part of an initiation ritual or a pre-condition for membership.” But equally problematic, if the article does not mention any of the plaintiffs by name, then how can they claim that it accuses them of rape? Even it the article left no doubt that the fraternity has such a requirement, perhaps these individuals refused to participate.

The fraternity itself might have a good claim, and if the membership is small enough that a reasonable argument could be made that it damaged the reputation of these three members, then they could have a claim as well.

By way of example, I once received a call from a police officer, wanting to sue for defamation based on what a newspaper had said about the police officers in his community. He was fed up with all the cop bashing, and he never commits the acts that the article attributes to all police, so he wanted to sue.

Context is everything. If the article stated that “every police officer on the Springfield police department is guilty of using excess force,” then the argument could be made that it is directed at this individual officer. But if the article stated that “more police officers on the Springfield police department are guilty of using excess force than any other department,” then it can’t reasonably be argued that the statement identifies any particular officers. Simply stated, your membership in a group won’t be sufficient basis to support a defamation claim, unless the publication specifically states or implies that you committed the acts. Absent extraordinary circumstances, being a member of a group won’t give you standing for a defamation claim.

Ironically and tragically, the frat members probably caused far more damage to themselves than the Rolling Stone article ever would have. The attorney for these fraternity members should have explained what would result from this action. Had the members done nothing, then at worst, in the future when they mentioned that they were former members of this fraternity, they might on very rare occasions have been met with the question, “Isn’t that the frat that has a rape ritual?” They could have answered, “Rolling Stone published a crazy story about that, but it was false, and the magazine later apologized.” Now, they have forever attached their names to this story, and future prospective employers who do an internet search for their names will be presented with this rape story.

[UPDATE – June 13, 2017]  Rolling Stone agreed to settle an action brought by the fraternity for $1.65 million. The frat has originally demanded $25 million, but settled for this lesser amount, giving “a significant portion” of the proceeds to charities related to fighting sexual assault.

[UPDATE – September 19, 2017]  The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of the action brought by fraternity members George Elias IV, Ross Fowler, and Stephen Hadford, finding that, given the small membership of the fraternity, they may be able to successfully show that the Rolling Stone article individually damaged their reputations.

Another Example of How Facebook Can Kill Your Lawsuit

banana peel

In today’s cautionary tale, a woman, Nancy Nicolauo, was bitten by a tick, and later began suffering symptoms such as numbness, fatigue and lower back pain. Things got worse, and she eventually had problems walking and was confined to a wheelchair.

Given the tick bite, Lyme disease was suspected, but the results came back as negative. She went to a passel of doctors, and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Nine years after the symptoms started, she got tested again for Lyme disease, and this time the results came back positive. Nicolaou decided to sue for medical malpractice, claiming her medical issue had been improperly diagnosed, causing her to suffer for all those years.

Now comes the key issue. Nicolaou received the results from the Lyme discease test in 2010, and filed her suit in 2012. She claimed she was within the two year statute of limitations (SOL) for a medical malpractice claim because she did not “discover” the misdiagnosis until she received the test results in 2010. But when a claim is based on discovery, the SOL runs from the date that the plaintiff “knew or should have known” of the negligence.

However, counsel for defendants had done a little snooping into Nicolaou’s Facebook postings. As argued by defense counsel, “As underscored by the trial court, on Feb. 14, 2010, Mrs. Nicolaou posted, ‘I had been telling everyone for years i thought it was lyme…,’ to which one of her Facebook friends responded, ‘[Y]ou DID say you had Lyme so many times!'”

Thus, as evidenced by her own Facebook postings, Nicolaou had suspected “for years” that she was suffering from Lyme disease. Therefore, she “knew or SHOULD HAVE KNOWN” that the doctors had misdiagnosed her condition years earlier. The court did not agree that the clock did not start ticking on the SOL until she had actual confirmation from the lab test. She was under a reasonable duty to investigate her suspicions.

The trial court dismissed her claims on a motion for summary judgment, and that decision was upheld by the appellate court.

Posting on Facebook is a little like playing poker with all your cards face up on the table. It can be done, but the other side knows exactly what you have.

Proof Positive that You Need a Good Defamation / Anti-SLAPP Attorney


Litigation is never a 100% certainty, as evidenced by the two cases that follow. But an attorney who really knows his or her stuff can certainly mean the difference between victory or defeat. If you are going to enter the murky waters of a defamation action, be sure you have a good defamation attorney.

Our first example is the case of Francis X. Cheney, II v. Daily News L.P. (Cheney).  In Cheney, 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 also 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.

Cheney sued the newspaper, claiming that the photo had harmed his reputation by implying that he was one of the firefighters involved in the sex scandal. But a judge in federal court dismissed the action, finding that since the article never mentioned Cheney by name, it was too much of a stretch to assume that readers would think the photo was there because he was a participant.

Cheney appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with the conclusion of the trial court, and affirmed the dismissal of Cheney’s case. [But see the update at the end of this article!]

So, the rule of law appears to be that if a newspaper uses a stock photo of you in conjunction with a scandalous story, you cannot successfully sue for defamation unless you are referenced by name in the article.

Now we turn to the case of Leah Manzari v. Associated News Ltd. (Manzari).

In this case, an online newspaper called the Daily Mail Online published an article about the adult film industry, entitled, “PORN INDUSTRY SHUTS DOWN WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT AFTER ‘FEMALE PERFORMER’ TESTS POSITIVE FOR HIV.” With the article, the Daily Mail published a stock photo of Leah Manzari, who is professionally known as Danni Ashe. Manzari sued for defamation, stating that the article falsely implied that she tested positive for HIV.

The article never used Manzari’s real name or film name. So, under the reasoning of the firefighter case, Manzari’s action has to be dismissed because it is too much of a stretch to think that readers will assume the article is referring to her, just because of the photo. Right? Continue reading

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

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.

 

Gay Lawyer Takes Stand in Defamation Suit

The gay attorney suing Anapol Schwartz for defamation took the stand Tuesday to outline his departure from the firm and his decision to accept a job at Raynes McCarty…

Source: www.thelegalintelligencer.com

Quite the case. The law firm associate, Jeffrey Downs, was planning to make a lateral move from Anapol Schwartz to Raynes McCarty, but allegedly his former firm informed the new firm that Downs was preparing to sue the former firm for discrimination. Raynes McCarty then revoked its offer.

Ironically, Downs is now suing Raynes McCarty for discrimination and defamation. Presumably, if the allegations are true, the firm revoked the offer because it feared that Downs was litigious and wanted to avoid being sued, but in the process bought itself a lawsuit in any event.

Equally ironic, before leaving Downs had sent an email to his firm, seeking eight months of severance pay. That is the email that the firm is pointing to to claim that Downs was threatening litigation before his departure, which would make the warning to the new firm absolutely true.

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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