Clients sometimes ask me to seek a letter of apology as part of a defamation settlement. I have managed to do so on a number of occasions, but I usually recommend a letter of retraction as opposed to a letter of apology, because the latter is often a deal breaker.
In our society, a true apology is a big deal (as opposed to an “I apologize if you were offended” type of apology). Many defendants would rather pay money than to apologize, which is somehow viewed as weak. After all, a real apology seeks forgiveness from the other side, so it sticks in the craw of most defamers that they are basically asking the victim to pass judgment on them.
With this mind set in mind, one can fully appreciate the frustration of Mark Byron. He and his wife were divorcing and fighting over the custody of their son. When the judge issued an order limiting his custody, he went to his Facebook page to vent, posting:
“… if you are an evil, vindictive woman who wants to ruin your husband’s life and take your son’s father away from him completely — all you need to do is say that you’re scared of your husband or domestic partner… , “
But there was a problem. The judge had also ordered Byron not to do “anything to cause his wife to suffer physical and/or mental abuse, harassment, annoyance, or bodily injury.” His wife was blocked from his Facebook page, but she got wind of the posting anyway and her attorney charged into court seeking a contempt order, asserting that the posting violated the protective order.
The judge agreed that it violated the order, and gave Byron a choice. The normal result for violation of a court order is a fine and/or some time in jail. The judge told Byron he could go to jail for 60 days for the violation of the order OR he could post an apology on Facebook. Byron decided he’d eat a little crow and post the apology rather than to sit in jail for two months. Here is what he posted:
I would like to apologize to my wife, Elizabeth Byron, for the comments regarding her and our son … which were posted on my Facebook wall on or about November 23, 2011. I hereby acknowledge that two judicial officials in the Hamilton County Domestic Relations Court have heard evidence and determined that I committed an act of domestic violence against Elizabeth on January 17, 2011. While that determination is currently being appealed, it has not been overturned by the appellate court. As a result of that determination, I was granted supervised parenting time with (my son) on a twice weekly basis. The reason I saw (my son) only one time during the four month period which ended about the time of my Facebook posting was because I chose to see him on only that single occasion during that period. I hereby apologize to Elizabeth for casting her in an unfavorable light by suggesting that she withheld (my son) from me or that she in any manner prevented me from seeing (my son) during that period. That decision was mine and mine alone. I further apologize to all my Facebook Friends for attempting to mislead them into thinking that Elizabeth was in any manner preventing me from spending time with (my son), which caused several of my Facebook Friends to respond with angry, venomous, and inflammatory comments of their own.
This case is being reported as a judge who trammeled on the free speech rights of a party, but I really don’t see it that way. Would it have been better for the judge to jail Byron with no offer of an alternative? There was another case where a judge told a shoplifter he could go to jail or stand in front of the store wearing an apology sign for a day. People also got up in arms about that verdict, but I think so long as it is offered as an alternative to normal jail time. For the record, to judges everywhere, if you are about to send me to jail, please offer me some crazy punishment as an alternative. On the other hand, if the judge had simply ordered the apology, I would have a problem with that result.
Where I think the judge got it wrong was his determination that Byron had violated the order. The judge had ordered him not to do anything to cause his wife “to suffer physical and/or mental abuse, harassment, annoyance, or bodily injury.” His Facebook posting was an absolutely true statement, and it only became “about” his wife if the reader was familiar enough with the circumstances to connect the dots. The comments were not even addressed to his wife, since she was blocked. To order someone not to say anything that might “annoy” someone else, and then hold them in contempt for doing so, is not appropriate in this country.
I recently reported on a Twitter defamation case in Australia, and how strange things can get without a law the Communications Decency Act. Now comes a case out of India.
India has a police unit called the Cyber Crime Investigation Cell (CCIC). Although I don’t want to see defamation criminalized, because that then gives the government the power to silence unpopular speech, I do admit the thought of an agency you could turn these things over to is slightly appealing.
In the case in India, the CCIC is investigating a complaint filed by actor Pooja Bedi against an anonymous Twitterer (Tweeter?, One who Tweets?), for allegedly defaming her on Twitter. According to Bedi’s complaint to the cyber crime unit, someone has been trying to tarnish her image on Twitter. Bedi has also alleged someone was threatening violence and writing ill about her. “These things are serious in nature and need to be investigated,” said Bedi in her complaint.
However Bedi said after the police complaint was filed, the accused deleted her account and changed her Twitter ID to @missbollyB, even apologizing to Bedi through her posts. Cyber crime cell officers said they had registered a case of defamation based on Bedi’s complaint. The police have sent a request to US authorities to provide information necessary for the probe.
I’m getting calls from media outlets about some comments made by Rush Limbaugh, and whether they constitute defamation. I’m always happy to talk to you reporters and provide comments, but thought I’d put this post up to provide some background for your articles.
Apparently Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the controversy over religious organizations being forced to pay for birth control for their employees. Following an appearance by Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University student, at an informal House Democratic hearing last month. Ms. Fluke testified in favor of Mr. Obama’s mandate, which Georgetown and other Catholic institutions have roundly condemned as an infringement on their religious rights.
At the hearing, Ms. Fluke said fellow students at her Jesuit university pay as much as $1,000 a year for contraceptives that are not covered by student health plans.
On Wednesday, during his radio show, Limbaugh allegedly said:
“What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute . . . she wants to be paid to have sex … She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception.”
Accusing a woman of being unchaste is the classic, old-school form of slander. Here is the definition of slander under California’s Civil Code § 46:
Slander is a false and unprivileged publication, orally uttered, and also communications by radio or any mechanical or other means which:
1. Charges any person with crime, or with having been indicted, convicted, or punished for crime;
2. Imputes in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease;
3. Tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing to him general disqualification in those respects which the office or other occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to his office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits;
4. Imputes to him impotence or a want of chastity; or
5. Which, by natural consequence, causes actual damage.
I’ll bet you never knew it was slander to accuse a man of being impotent, but I digress. There it is in black and white – it is slander to impute to a woman a “want of chastity”. (For those of you who carefully read the section and see that it said “imputes to HIM . . . a want of chastity”, you get bonus points. However, there is a catchall statute that provides statements of gender in statutes don’t exclude the other gender, so you can’t accuse men or women of being loose.)
So is Rush Limbaugh toast?
Not at all, because defamation law makes clear that context is everything. Back in 2009 I wrote about the case of radio commentator Tom Martino who stated on his consumer show that the sellers of a boat were “lying”. The plaintiffs/sellers took umbrage with that remark, and sued Martino for defamation. Defendants responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming the statement was merely an opinion and therefore could not constitute defamation. The trial court agreed with defendants and ruled that as a matter of law the comments did not constitute defamation. Under the anti-SLAPP statute, plaintiffs were ordered to pay all of defendants’ attorney fees.
A true opinion cannot constitute defamation unless it is offered as an assertion of fact. While it was true that the radio program host accused the plaintiffs of “lying” to their customer, that could not seriously be taken as an assertion of fact given the context of the show. As the court observed, “The Tom Martino Show is a radio talk show program that contains many of the elements that would reduce the audiences’ expectation of leaning an objective fact: drama, hyperbolic language, an opinionated and arrogant host and heated controversy. In the context of the show, Martino was simply listening to the complaint of a caller, and possessed no independent knowledge of the facts beyond what he was being told. It could not be taken, in that context, that he intended his “lying” comment to be taken as a verifiable fact.
So it is with Rush Limbaugh. He knows nothing about this woman who believes others should pay for her birth control, and he was engaging in a little hyperbole about what that makes her. He was creating a false syllogism to make a point, claiming that based on her testimony she wants to have sex, she can’t have sex without birth control, she wants someone else to pay for her birth control, so she is being paid to have sex.
As the old saying goes, you can sue for anything, but a defamation action by Ms. Fluke would not survive the first motion.
Joe Francis is infamous as the creator of the “Girls Gone Wild” video series. He is unprecedented in his ability to sabotage his life.
The most recent example came down today in the form of a $7.5 million damage award against Francis and in favor of Steve Wynn and Wynn Las Vegas. This part is speculation, but I’m guessing that he lost some money at Wynn’s casino (he did, in fact, run up a $2 million debt to the resort, but I don’t know if that was from gambling), and convinced himself that the casino was cheating him. Back to the facts, he began telling tales of how Wynn deceives his high-end customers.
Wynn didn’t like the implication that he was a cheater, and sued Francis for defamation way back in 2008. That litigation finally concluded yesterday, with the judge determining that Wynn had suffered five million in compensatory damages, and also awarded $2.5 million in punitive damages.
Defamation actions are not only about the money. You clear your name through a defamation action by putting the claims on trial. In other words, Francis claimed Wynn was a cheat, Wynn said he wasn’t, and the trial determines who is telling the truth.
Therefore, Steve Wynn now has a judicial determination that the claims by Joe Francis were false. If Wynn’s attorneys did their jobs, they should have also obtained an injunction preventing Francis from ever again claiming Wynn cheated him. (That’s what I always do here in California, but Nevada could have different laws in that regard.) By creating that order, Francis can be held in contempt and put in jail if he continues to tell his tales.
This $7.5 million judgment is on top of the $2 million plus interest and fees Francis already owes to Wynn Las Vegas as determined by the Nevada District Court in 2009.
The typical response by a defamation defendant under these circumstances will be to appeal, probably claiming that he could not put on a proper defense because the court denied his outrageous discovery requests or something.
I have frequently written here on the pros and cons of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”). Without it, no website could permit comments, but by the same token it allows unscrupulous website operators to encourage defamatory postings, and then use those postings to extort payments from the victims.
Because of the latter reality, many have suggested to me that they would like to see the CDA abolished. But a case out of Australia demonstrates just how ridiculous things get without the CDA.
Those Australians are people of few words, so I had to read a number of news accounts to piece together what had occurred. A blogger by the name of Marieke Hardy apparently picked up an anonymous on-line bully. For undisclosed reasons, Hardy decided that she had determined the identity of her mystery bully, so she posted the following comment on Twitter:
“I name and shame my ‘anonymous’ internet bully. Liberating business! Join me.”
The “tweet” then provided a link back to her blog, and there on the blog she identified Joshua Meggitt as the bully. Problem was, Meggitt was not the bully.
Meggitt sued for defamation. Hardy settled with him, allegedly for around $15,000. But Meggitt wants more. Meggitt is suing Twitter for defamation for the tweet by Hardy.
Do you see how absurd things quickly become without the CDA? If Twitter is responsible for every comment, then to avoid defamation it would have to put a delay on all comments, and hire thousands of employees to review the comments. As each comment passed in front of the reviewer, he or she would need to make a quick decision about whether that comment could possible be defamatory, and only then clear it for publication.
I want you to imagine that scenario. You are one of the Twitter reviewers. Thankfully Twitter limits each tweet to 140 characters, so there is not much to review, but you must apply your best judgment to each comment to see if anyone could be offended. So up pops the following:
“That J-Lo. She be crazy.”
Do you hit the approve or disapprove button? Was the “crazy” comment meant in a good or bad sense? Even if the person making the comment meant only that the singer Jennifer Lopez is crazy good, if you approve the comment then every person in the world who goes by the name J-Lo could potentially sue for defamation, claiming that the post accuses them of having mental problems.
But the dispute between Hardy and Meggitt takes the scenario to an even more absurd level. Applying those facts to out hypothetical, what you really received was:
“That J-Lo. She be crazy. http://tinyurl.com/48y28m7″
What do you do with THAT?! Twitter requires you to review and approve or deny 120 tweets per hour. To keep your job you only have less than 30 seconds to make a decision. You quickly click on the link to see why J-Lo is crazy, and you are confronted with a four and a half minute video! Do you have to watch the entire video to make sure it contains nothing defamatory? You don’t have time for that. REJECTED!
And here, all the tweeter wanted to do was pass along a great video by J-Lo.
Under the best possible circumstances, Twitter would be relegated to approving only the most milk toast comments with no possible defamatory implication. In reality though, Twitter could not possibly exist if it could be held liable for every comment posted.
To all of you who just responded with a resounding, “Who cares about Twitter?”, that’s not really the point. I’m talking big picture here.
It will be very interesting to see how the courts in Australia handle this case.
An international defamation action has ended up here in California. Out of the UK, Tyneside councillors (that’s the way they spell it over there) are very upset that an anonymous blogger who calls himself “Mr. Monkey” has been defaming them.
The council has backed a three-year hunt to discover the identity of Mr. Monkey, with the legal fees now exceeding six figures. So far, since they did not retain Morris & Stone, the attempts to uncover the identity of Mr. Monkey have been unsuccessful.
Enter Coun Ahmed Khan, a councillor from a rival political party. The four plaintiff councillors successfully moved to have Khan’s personal computer records disclosed, because they apparently suspected him of being Mr. Monkey. Khan denies that he is the primate in question, but has cried “enough is enough”, and wants to put an end to the search.
To that end, he brought what I can only characterize as an offensive anti-SLAPP motion (not offensive as in crude, but as in the opposite of defensive). He intervened in the San Mateo Superior Court action and filed an anti-SLAPP motion, asserting that even though he is not Mr. Monkey, the comments of Mr. Monkey are protected and the action should therefore be dismissed.
Motion DENIED. Indeed, the court found the motion to be so frivolous that it awarded attorney fees of £40,000 to the plaintiffs. (I once obtained a judgment in Los Angeles Superior Court in British pounds. It’s worth it just to see the court clerks try to figure out how to enter it into the system and calculate interest and the like.)
Khan has now appealed the denial of his anti-SLAPP motion and the award of attorney fees. The complete story can be found here.
[Correction] The sources upon which I was relying may have jumped the gun as to the award of attorney fees. One of the parties to the action contacted me to state that the £40,000 figure is what is being sought, but that the motion for those fees has been stayed pending the appeal.
The case of Metabolic Research, Inc. v. Scott J. Ferrell, et al. is turning out to be a fascinating case on several levels, including liability considerations for attorneys and SLAPP issues. Briefly, here are the facts as set forth in a recent opinion of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Scott J. Ferrell is an attorney practicing in Orange County, California. He apparently believes that a supplement being made by Metabolic and sold by GNC (Stemulite) is bad stuff. To that end, he sent demand letters to Metabolic and GNC in Pennsylvania and Nevada, accusing them of violating the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act by way of false advertising, and threatening to sue them (presumably in California)* if they did not stop their (allegedly) evil ways and agree to an injunction to that effect.
In California, Ferrell’s letter would likely have been determined to be part of the litigation process and therefore protected, UNLESS it was deemed to be extortion. (See Flately v. Mauro.) In California, the issue would have proved very interesting, because while Ferrell was not demanding any money, the hallmark of true extortion, the injunction he was demanding was so onerous – including a requirement that all profits be disgorged – that Metabolic claimed it would have put it out of business. Nonetheless, in California it might have been decided that the letters did not cross the line, and Ferrell would have been safe from suit.
But Ferrell’s letters were sent outside of California. In November 2009 Metabolic filed a lawsuit in Nevada State Court against Ferrell, charging extortion and racketeering based on his demand letter. Ferrell removed the case to Federal Court (I never would have done that for the reasons that follow), and then brought a motion to dismiss based upon Nevada’s anti-SLAPP statute, claiming that the lawsuit amounted to a SLAPP because it was suing him for engaging in litigation.
Motion DENIED. The District Court found that “Nevada’s anti-SLAPP legislation only protected communications made directly to a governmental agency and did not protect a demand letter sent to a potential defendant in litigation.” Again, as would be appropriate in California but not necessarily elsewhere, Ferrell took an immediate appeal.
Appeal DENIED. Federal courts do not like interlocutory appeals, and will find a way to reject them. The court did an in-depth review of Nevada’s anti-SLAPP statute, and concluded there was no right of immediate review of a denial of an anti-SLAPP motion. The court referred to this as a “run of the mill anti-SLAPP motion” (ouch), and held that a District Court judge affords sufficient safeguards to protect defendants from SLAPP actions without the added protection of an immediate appeal. However, to twist the knife a little, the Ninth Circuit threw in that Ferrell could have proceeded by way of a writ of mandamus, and that it was offering “no opinion on how we might have decided” such an application had it been pursued.
Lawyer Lesson 1: Consider that when you send a demand letter out of state, you may be subjecting yourself to an action in that jurisdiction.
Lawyer Lesson 2: (And I have seen this over and over) Don’t remove a case to Federal court just because you can. The motion may well have been decided the same way in State court, but I would not have wanted it decided there.
* That’s not me presuming, the court opinion used those words.
The District of Columbia instituted an anti-SLAPP procedure back in March but the judges are having a heck of a time figuring it out. (Don’t feel bad D.C., California has had a SLAPP statute since 1992, and some judges still don’t get it.)
Judge Rufus G. King III of the D.C. Superior Court got it right. A local television station did a report on the ridiculous amounts of overtime that was being paid to certain government officials. In one reported case of a fire department Lieutenant, his annual salary was $90,000 but he had earned as much as $119,000 in overtime pay one year.
That Lieutenant took exception with the fact that the news story had used terms like “racked up” and “month after month”, claiming those statements were defamatory. His attorney apparently failed to explain or he refused to understand that only the “gist” of the statement need be true in order to defeat a defamation action, so he filed a defamation action against the television station, and the station quite properly brought an anti-SLAPP motion.
Judge King ruled that the report was a matter of public interest and therefore fell under the anti-SLAPP statute, and that the Lieutenant failed to demonstrate a likelihood that he could establish damages. Motion GRANTED, case DISMISSED. Good job D.C.
But then there was Judge Richard Leon. You may recall that a U.S. Department of Agriculture official named Shirley Sherrod left her job after a video was released, seemingly showing her confessing to discriminating against white farmers. It later came to light that the comments were arguably taken out of context due to the editing of the video. Sherrod didn’t appreciate that, and sued blogger Andres Breitbart, among others, asserting in her complaint that the “deceptively edited” clip constituted defamation. Breitbart responded by bringing an anti-SLAPP motion, asserting that the posting of the clip was an act of protected speech.
Sure sounds like a SLAPP to me, but Judge Leon denied the motion out-of-hand with only a two sentence order. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was stumped by that one as well, and today ordered Judge Leon to explain himself.
Less than a week ago, Judge Robert L. Wilkins out of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was not nearly as concise as Judge Leon, and issued a 55-page opinion denying an anti-SLAPP motion, finding “that the special motion to dismiss procedure under the Anti-SLAPP Act does not apply to a federal court sitting in diversity.”
I found this news squib interesting because it follows the precise example I often use to explain the difference between opinion and a statement of fact, and it shows how one country is dealing with reviews posted for extortionist purposes.
First, the example. If you eat at a restaurant and later post a review that says the food tasted like poison, you are probably safe from a claim for defamation. Most would agree that your statement is mere hyperbole; that you are offering your opinion that the food tasted bad, not that you actually meant it contained poison.
On the other hand, if you say that the food did, indeed, poison you, then you’d better be able to back it up with hard evidence. The first cannot be measured – what you think poison tastes like is your opinion. The second statement can be tested, because we can see if the food that day could have led to food poisoning.
Now to the real life application. It seems that one of the latest fads in Internet extortion is for a reviewer to post a review claiming that he suffered food poisoning at a restaurant. The extortionist then offers to accept, say, $5,000 for the pain and suffering of the poisoning and, oh, incidentally, offers to take down the terrible review as well. Other times the offer to remove the post never comes, because the false allegation of food poisoning is from a competitor.
This scam has become so rampant in Great Britain that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has informed TripAdvisor that it can no longer claim or even imply that its restaurant reviews can be trusted. The news item added that it is not always the case that the reviewer knows he or she is publishing a falsehood. When one suffers legitimate food poisoning, they almost always blame the last place they ate, not realizing that the incubation period for a good case of food poisoning is usually one or two days, and can take as long as a week. In most cases, it is impossible to know which restaurant is responsible for the poisoning except by finding a common restaurant among a group of victims.