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.
Our client in this case was Spencer Kobren, a well known Consumer/Patient Advocate, author and the Founder of The American Hair Loss Association. Besides hosting a weekly radio broadcast, Kobren also owns and operates the online message forum baldtruthtalk.com where hair loss consumers can discuss and share their experiences with product and service providers in the hair loss industry, as well as provide commentary and reviews of hair transplant surgeons in the field.
As most Internet savvy people now know, the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) shields the operator of a website from any liability for comments posted on an open forum. When someone on Kobren’s forum posted critical comments about a Beverly Hills hair transplant surgeon, the doctor took exception. However, instead of contacting Mr. Kobren or his staff to ask for help in properly addressing negative comments posted by one of his former patients, the doctor decided to defame our client by posting completely fabricated reviews and comments on various blogs, review sites and social media sites, accusing Kobren of fraud, coercion, extortion, organized crime and the running of a criminal enterprise.
As an aside, some sites encourage negative comments, and have no concern as to whether or not they are true. Operators of these sites are also protected by the CDA, but knowingly allowing false and defamatory comments to be posted was not the intention of the CDA, and we will not represent a party who is using the CDA to that end. This was not that type of case. Spencer Kobren runs a very positive and useful board, and will intervene where appropriate when the content crosses the line.
Back to the story. Despite my repeated postings of articles about the wisdom of a walk-away, and even this one, which is almost identical to this case, some defamers feel they must show bravado, claiming they can prove the truth of all of their comments. It’s as though they never think it through until I serve the first set of discovery questions, which forces them for the first time to sit down and put in writing all the facts they are contending support the statements they made. I have this image in my mind of them sitting at their kitchen table, my discovery requests spread in front of them, and after about 45 minutes of trying to answer the questions and realizing that there is not one fact they can offer that would support the defamatory statements they made, saying to themselves, “Man, I am SCREWED!”
Such a moment must have occurred in this case. Defendant first did not even respond to the complaint, then he hired an attorney to undo the default, then he fired that attorney, and agreed to remove all the defamatory comments, never to speak ill of our client again, and to pay $150,000.
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 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.
It seems like every few weeks I have to rail against a lawsuit I read about, wherein the attorney representing the plaintiff brings an action that is clearly barred by the Communications Decency Act. In this latest installment, we find a New York attorney who represents plaintiffs who appear to have a solid case against some individual defendants resulting from some truly horrific defamation on the Internet.
But the attorney could not leave it alone. I can almost see his mind working. He thinks to himself, “these individuals will never be able to pay the judgment, so I’d better look around for some deep pockets.” So, in addition to the individual defendants he names ning.com, wordpress.com, twitter.com, and my personal favorite, godaddy.com.
I sometimes use the analogy that naming a Internet Service Provider in an Internet defamation action is akin to naming Microsoft as a defendant because the defamer used Word to type the defamatory statements. I never thought any attorney would actually go that far, but the attorney in this case surpasses even that far flung analogy. I know it’s a foreign concept to some attorneys and their clients, but a defendant should only be held liable for damages if he, she or it has done something wrong. Here, twitter.com is named because the defendants sent out “tweets” sending their followers to the defamatory content. Godaddy.com is named because the defendants obtained the domain name there, and then set it to forward to their blog on wordpress.com. How could these companies possibly be liable? Well, according to plaintiffs and their attorney, they are liable because what the defendants did amounted to an “irresponsible use of technology.”
Apparently, in this attorney’s world, we have gone beyond even requiring that the website provider check the content of every web page posted on its server. Now it is also the obligation of twitter.com to review and authorize every tweet that is sent, and godaddy.com must view with suspicion every account that sets a domain name to forward elsewhere. Clearly there could be no Internet if such duty and liability could be imposed.
In (very slight) defense of the attorney, he does allege that these companies were informed of the nefarious use of their services, and did nothing to block the content. Among the public there is an urban legend that a company becomes liable once it is informed that it is being used to distribute the defamatory content, but an attorney should know better.
Even when a lawsuit is weak on merit it sometimes achieves its purpose. I will have no part in filing a meritless lawsuit, but sometimes it is appropriate to push the envelope.
Take the case of Tony La Russa, famous baseball manager. Like so many other well known people, someone hijacked his name and image on Twitter, leading many “followers” to believe that the musings coming from this Twitterer (Twitterite?) were coming from the real deal. La Russa tried to persuade Twitter to intervene and remove the fake identity, but sure as there is a fail whale, the fine folks at Twitter refused to cooperate.
La Russa filed suit and got a lot of grief for doing so, with most legal experts citing the Communications Decency Act (CDA) as a barrier to the suit. But, obviously, this is not a typical CDA situation. Yes, La Russa was seeking to hold Twitter liable for the “postings” of third parties, and that is classic CDA material. But there are some interesting side issues. For example, a website cannot encourage visitors to post copyrighted e-books for download and then expect to escape liability under the CDA because third parties are the ones actually posting the books. In that case, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act would trump the CDA. Like a copyright, people have a pecuniary interest in there own identities. Should Twitter be permitted to assist in those that would steal that identity?
The La Russa case will not be providing any answers to this question, because it has been withdrawn, but not before Twitter deleted the offending account. Most are reporting this story as a victory for Twitter, but didn’t La Russa get exactly what he asked for in the first place?
For more on this story, go here.
I’ve explained here several times that the Communications Decency Act is a necessary evil because you could never have open forums for discussion on the Internet if the operators of the websites were required to read and approve every message posted. Perhaps the Amazons of the world would have the resources to hire a huge staff to monitor all postings, but any popular discussion site that started to attract thousands of visitors would likely be required to stop offering a public forum if it became responsible for the things posted by visitors.
Some attorneys still don’t understand this reality. Take the case of Richard M. Berman. Poor Richard was shot by someone using a handgun purchased from a for sale ad posted on Craigslist. He hired attorney Paul B. Dalnocky, who sued Craigslist for more than $10 million, claiming it was responsible for the handgun ending up in the bad guy’s hands. The civil complaint alleged Craigslist “is either unable or unwilling to allocate the necessary resources to monitor, police, maintain and properly supervise the goods and services” sold on its site. When interviewed for an article on Law.com, attorney Dalnocky said, “We weren’t seeing Craigslist as a publisher — we were seeing it as a regular business that should have monitored its business better. I mean, how can you run a business with millions of ads and have only 25 employees monitoring it?”
No, Mr. Dalnocky, the question is, how would a service like Craigslist be possible if attorneys could sue for things posted in those millions of ads? The answer is it wouldn’t be possible. You allege “millions” of ads are posted on Craigslist. Let’s assume a person could review 1000 ads during a work day. That’s probably not realistic, because that means the person would need to review more than two ads per minute (assuming an eight-hour work day with two 15 minute breaks). Some ads go on for pages so I don’t think one could really review more than two ads per minute, but let’s go with 1000 just to keep the numbers simple. Thus, Craigslist would need to hire 1000 employees for every one million ads posted. It’s going to be very difficult for old Craig to maintain his business model that permits me to post free ads for my 8-track tapes if he is required to hire thousands of employees.
And, Mr. Dalnocky, what would those thousands of employees be looking for, exactly? Guns can be legally sold, and I did not see anything in the court’s decision about any alleged illegality of the gun sale in question. Rather, your complaint alleged that Craigslist was liable because it breached its “duty of care to ensure that inherently hazardous objects, such as handguns, did not come into the hands of . . . individuals, such as Mr. Ortiz.” (Ortiz was alleged to have shot Richard Berman.) What, in that ad, would have put the reviewer on notice that this gun sale was going to end badly?
The attorney representing Craigslist is no doubt a subscriber to the Internet Defamation Blog, and therefore knew that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is not limited only to claims for defamation. Craigslist moved for dismissal under §230, which states that no “provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” and that no “cause of action may be brought and liability imposed under any State law that is inconsistent with this section.”
The court properly dismissed the case under the CDA because, let’s say it all together, a website operator cannot be held liable for comments (or ads) posted by third parties, and is not liable for failing to somehow monitor those comments (or ads). One of the earliest cases involving the CDA was an action against Ebay. Someone sued, claiming that Ebay should be held liable for the counterfeit items that were being posted and sold, trying to impose on it an obligation to review and investigate every ad. Ebay prevailed in that action, and Craigslist properly prevailed in this one.
The full court decision can be found here.
Catherine Crier is a former Dallas District Court judge who left the bench to launch a career as a television journalist. Crier has worked as a correspondent for Court TV and the Fox News Channel. This week she found herself on the other side of the bench, as the plaintiff in an Internet defamation action.
Crier is upset by changes that were made to her Wikipedia page. Specifically, some moron defamer decided it would be clever to insert information about a disbarred Texas attorney named Catherine Shelton. The defamer simply took a published article about Shelton, changed “Shelton” to “Crier” wherever it appeared, and inserted the revised article into Crier’s listing on Wikipedia. Wikipedia affords anyone the opportunity to edit articles, and the open marketplace is supposed to result in a fairly accurate encyclopedia entry. However, if the person is dedicated to inserting the false information, it becomes an editing war. No doubt Crier decided to eschew that game, and went straight to the lawsuit.
Crier has already determined the IP address of the defamer, and will now ask 162nd District Judge Lorraine A. Raggio to issue a subpoena to AT&T (the Internet service provider) ordering it to identity of the owner of the specified Internet protocol address.
Procedurally this is a pretty standard case, although the Wikipedia aspect is a little different, since that site is unique in permitting the victim of defamation to make his or her own changes to the defamer’s comments. But I put this case here as another example of the sort of nonsensical information that finds its way onto the Internet. We fight for a free marketplace of ideas, but who would argue that this sort of behavior should enjoy any protection? What possible motivation could the defamer have had for posting this falsified article, other than to spread malicious misinformation?
Crier’s petition can be found here.
There are still many attorneys making money representing clients on Internet defamation cases that can’t be won. They are either ignorant of the law, or ignoring it. My firm has been schooling others on the Communications Decency Act for years. See, for example, Winning the Fight for Freedom of Expression on the Internet and A Victory Against Spam. But there are still a number of firms that still need an education. A case just came down in New York, where someone tried to sue a web host for the comments posted on his website.
Let’s all say it together. If a website is created that allows visitors to post their comments, under the Communications Decency Act the host of that website cannot be held liable for any defamatory remarks that others post. The law is very black and white in this area. The myth still continues that if the defamed party makes the website operator aware of the defamatory material, he somehow becomes liable for failing to take it down. That is simply not true.
There is a lot of abuse on the Internet, and ideally a web host should respond to requests to remove defamatory posts, but if that were made the law then the ability to host a community forum would disappear in almost all instances.
Consider a helpful, innocent person who decides to start a restaurant forum, discussing the local businesses. Someone goes on and leaves a post that a local sushi restaurant is using old fish. The sushi restaurant contacts the host, and insists that the post be taken down, claiming they use nothing but fresh fish. How would our hypothetical web host go about investigating such a claim? Is he required to go to the restaurant and inspect the receipts to determine the freshness of the fish? Must he insist that the poster provide proof of the old fish?
Most likely, if faced with civil liability, the host would simply take down the post. And when reviewing all the protests became too time consuming, the forum would disappear. The day Congress passes a law requiring website operators to verify all the claims made by visitors to their sites is the day that most free speech ends on the Internet. Many would prefer that, but in my opinion the open approach is the better approach.