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.”
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 occasionally post stories here that highlight what it is like to live in countries that do not recognize freedom of speech. My perhaps naïve hope is that if we recognize what a tremendous gift we have with our right of free speech, some who might be tempted to abuse that privilege with defamatory speech might act responsibly.
Today’s example comes from Palestine. I would not anticipate that Palestine would be a bastion of free speech rights, but if that government wants to cultivate sympathy and support, this is not the way to go about it.
The Palestinian Authority doesn’t permit criticism of the government, and this week arrested Abdul-Khaleq, a Palestinian woman accused of defaming President Mahmoud Abbas on her Facebook profile. What did she say to justify two weeks in jail while she was “investigated”? The university lecturer, a single mother of two children, reportedly accused Abbas of being a traitor and demanding he resign.
Perhaps worse from a free speech standpoint, this arrest is part of a growing crackdown on writers who condemn the West Bank government, and in one case a reporter was questioned over a story he was still in the process of researching. Apparently the government wants to silence speech before it is even spoken.
Appreciate what we have.
The California Court of Appeal recently ruled that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to SLAPP law, and that I have saved many doctors from filing actions that would have been met with successful anti-SLAPP motions and thereby cost them many thousands of dollars, paying the other side’s attorney fees.
OK, the Court didn’t actually mention me by name, but that’s the way I read it. You see, most doctors (depending on their practice) want and need medical privileges at one or more hospitals. Without those privileges, their practices are really crippled. So when a hospital decides to revoke those privileges, it is a big deal for the doctor.
Following the revocation, the doctors want to do something, anything, to pressure the hospital’s board to reinstate the privileges. That often brings them to my door, wanting to sue for defamation, claiming that someone said something that cost them their privileges, and that they suffered damages as a result.
I have always refused such cases, because I am of the opinion that under normal circumstances, the entire medical peer review process qualifies as an official proceeding. Therefore, it falls under both the anti-SLAPP statute and the absolute privileges of Civil Code section 47. No matter how you try to plead the action, it will come back to the fact that the decision to “fire” the doctor was a protected activity.
Leading us to the case of radiologist John Nesson versus Northern Inyo County Local Hospital District. For reasons not important to the story, Dr. Nesson lost his privileges at a hospital. Dr. Nesson sought reappointment by the hospital and, after it was denied, filed a civil complaint. He retained counsel who either did not recognize the SLAPP aspects of the case or decided to take a run at it anyway, thinking they could successfully plead around them. (Which does not mean they did anything wrong, as set forth below.)
In the complaint, they alleged causes of action for: (1) breach of contract; (2) breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing; (3) violation of Health and Safety Code section 1278.5; (4) violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act; and (5) violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). In summary, the grounds for Dr. Nesson’s claims were that the hospital had breached the Agreement by not giving him 30 days’ notice of termination, had retaliated against him for his complaints about patient safety, and had discriminated against him for a perceived mental disability or medical condition.
A very good try. Do you see that none of the causes of action mention defamation or any of the other causes of action that one normally associates with a SLAPP suit? Many defense attorneys would not have even spotted the SLAPP issues, and the matter would have proceeded. But here is today’s lesson. A SLAPP is a SLAPP is a SLAPP, and it doesn’t matter what you call the causes of action if the conduct arises from a protected activity.
I previously wrote about my successful anti-SLAPP motion against Freddie Fraudster, who fraudulently obtained a credit card under my client’s name. When my client reported the fraud to the bank, Freddie sued claiming that damaged his reputation with that institution. In response to my anti-SLAPP motion, he argued that my client’s communications to the bank were not protected because they were not part of any formal review process. Motion GRANTED, even though the report in question was not to any official agency.
So too, the attorneys defending against Dr. Nesson’s action did spot the SLAPP issues, and brought an anti-SLAPP motion. Dr. Nesson argued in response that his summary suspension and the subsequent termination of the Agreement did not constitute protected activity because the hospital was not involved in the peer review process or his summary suspension. Motion GRANTED, because it’s all part of the same protected activity.
The decision to suspend privileges triggers a statutory scheme for review of the decision under Business and Professions Code section 805, so the actions of the hospital and the medical examination committee were a normal part of that process. As I have repeatedly explained would happen, the trial court granted the hospital’s special motion to strike, finding that the contract termination was “inextricably intertwined with the . . . summary suspension, arose from, and was in furtherance of the protected activity.”
But what about the claim that he was terminated because of a perceived mental disability or medical condition? If he was discriminated against, how can that be protected by the anti-SLAPP statute? How can that “arise from” the protected activity? As the Court of Appeal explained:
“[T]he anti-SLAPP statute applies to claims made in connection with the protected activity, regardless of defendant’s motive, or the motive the plaintiff may be ascribing to the defendant’s conduct. (Navellier v. Sletten, supra, 29 Cal.4th at pp. 89-90.) The only alleged evidence or argument in support of his claim that the Hospital perceived Nesson as disabled are the facts that the Hospital received the written special notice of summary action and the notice of medical executive committee action suspension. Nesson contends “[b]ased on the above letters and a report from the MEC, the Hospital decided to terminate Nesson’s Service Agreement.” These letters and any alleged “report” are part of the peer review process.”
In defense of the attorneys, there were complicating factors here, and sometimes you have to push the envelope. That is how statutes are interpreted under the law. The discrimination claim might have survived if the evidence had taken the alleged discrimination outside the review process. Further complicating the matter, Dr. Nesson did not exhaust his administrative remedies, and that gave pause to the court since that made it impossible for him to show a likelihood of success on the action.
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.