Privilege

This Changes Everything – You Can Now Be Sued for Calling the Police

Angry Plaintiff in Jail

California recently turned defamation law on its ear, as regards calling the police. Let me set the scene with a hypothetical that will demonstrate the terrible consequences of California’s new take on what speech is privileged.

The criminal across the street.

You and your neighbor Bob have an ongoing dispute about whether your visitors can park on the street in front of his house. (This is a real phenomenon, with some people believing they own the street in front of their home.) During a small gathering at your home, you happen to look out the window and see Bob spray painting “no parking!” on one of your guests’ cars. You report the incident to the police, and after seeing paint on Bob’s fingers matching the paint on the car, they take him away for booking.

Bob is quite a jerk, and is already on probation for a prior criminal offense. If he can’t figure out a way to beat this rap, he is going to spend some time in jail. So he comes up with a brilliant strategy.

He decides he will sue you in civil court for defamation, claiming you lied when you told the police that you saw him vandalizing the car. Whether or not he will win is of no importance. Rather, his plan is to make you spend tens of thousands of dollars fighting his defamation claim. You will soon realize that you really gain nothing by having Bob prosecuted, beyond seeing justice done. You will at some point ask yourself, “is that justice worth the $50,000 or more I am going to spend on attorneys, fighting against this defamation claim?”

Far beyond the cost, Bob’s lawsuit against you will give him all kinds of opportunities to harass you. His attorneys can make you spend most of your free time responding to discovery, and he can even make you show up at the time and place he chooses, and sit across a table from him while his attorney asks you personal questions at a deposition. Heck, he might even decide to take the deposition himself just so he can have the personal satisfaction of making you answer whatever questions he decides to ask you over the course of seven hours. But he’s not done. He can bring in every person who was at your house and put them through the same experience.

The standard for what is relevant is very broad in litigation. Since his claim is that you made up the entire story about him vandalizing the car, he is permitted to try and determine what motivated you to do such a horrible thing. Do you have a thing for his wife, and were trying to get him out of the way? Or maybe you have a thing for him, and are mad that it is unrequited. He can take a deep dive into any of his crazy claims.

Since he will be seeking punitive damages, and such damages are based on your income and net worth, he can ask you to turn over all your financial information. There are protections against this, but you will spend thousands to have your attorney fight the discover demand in court, and in the end the court could order you to turn over the information.

Ultimately, you may decide that the cost of justice is just too high. You will go to Bob and offer to drop your criminal charges if he will dismiss his defamation action. Bob gets away with vandalizing your friend’s car, and you are out however much money you spent before you decide to cave.

Relax, it was just a nightmare.

Until this year, this scenario was entirely fictional. You see, for a statement to be defamatory, it must be UNPRIVILEGED. There are types of speech that are deemed to be privileged. One example is statements that are made in court. Imagine a scenario where a witness could be sued for defamation for what they say in court. They are compelled by subpoena to appear and testify, only to then be sued for defamation for what they said. This would be completely untenable, so California law prohibits legal action based on testimony in court.

The same was true of reports to the police. Specifically to avoid the sort of scenario discussed above, California Civil Code section 47, which establishes a number of privileges, prohibited actions based on reports to the police.

That did not mean that one could lie to the police with impunity. First of all, making a false police report is a criminal act, and could land the liar in jail. Further, if someone lied to the police about you, and you were charged and put on trial, but proved you were innocent, you could then sue the person for malicious prosecution.

But you could not sue that person for defamation, or infliction of emotional distress, or negligence, or any other claim. As confirmed by the California Supreme Court in Hagberg v. California Federal Bank, reports to the police are absolutely privileged, and cannot be the basis for any legal action. No one ever needed to worry about being sued because they called the police.

Now you need to worry.

But, insanely in my opinion, the California Legislature just decided to change all that with an amendment to Civil Code section 47.

The protective language is still there:

“A privileged publication or broadcast is one made: . . . (b) In any (1) legislative proceeding, (2) judicial proceeding, (3) in any other official proceeding authorized by law . . .” Case law has determined that part (3) covers reports to the police.

But the Legislature giveth and taketh away. Effective this year, it added subpart (b)(5):

“(5) This subdivision does not make privileged any communication between a person and a law enforcement agency in which the person makes a false report that another person has committed, or is in the act of committing, a criminal act or is engaged in an activity requiring law enforcement intervention, knowing that the report is false, or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the report.”

To this some will respond (and the Legislature probably so reasoned) that there is nothing to worry about, so long as you don’t make a false report to the police. If that was your reaction, then you did not fully comprehend my long-winded hypothetical.

Even if your report to the police was as pure as the new-driven snow, that will not protect you from all the described harassment. Every criminal can now claim that the report against them was knowingly false, or was made with reckless disregard for the truth. Once the claim is made, it must be litigated.

And lest you think there will be some quick way to extricate yourself from this nightmare, there is not. For example, the motion that can sometimes get rid of a case before trial will be of no use. A motion for summary judgment cannot be granted if there is a material factual dispute. In our hypothetical, you could bring a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that your statement to the police was absolutely true, and therefore not defamatory, because you saw Bob vandalizing the car. But Bob will simply file a declaration saying he did not vandalize the car, and throw in a couple more declarations from friends, claiming they saw him lounging in his pool the entire time. Triable issue; motion denied.

What about an anti-SLAPP motion?

The anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, contains that same protective language as section 47:

“(e) As used in this section, “act in furtherance of a person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue” includes: (1) any written or oral statement or writing made before a legislative, executive, or judicial proceeding, or any other official proceeding authorized by law . . .”

I find it strange that the Legislature elected to create the right to sue for reports to the police by taking away the privilege in section 47, but left the protection unchanged in section 425.16. It would appear that the new found freedom to sue remains thwarted by the anti-SLAPP statute.

Or perhaps not.

Even though the wording is the same, case law holds that the protection (previously) afforded by section 47 does not serve the same purpose as that of section 425.16. Pointing to the latter section will determine whether the speech falls under the anti-SLAPP statute, but then that leads to the second prong, to determine if the plaintiff is likely to prevail. That will now be decided under the new section 47.

Plus, we again run smack into the evidentiary standards. For purposes of an anti-SLAPP motion, the evidence of the plaintiff is taken as true. The defendant’s evidence is reviewed only to determine whether it supports a defense that negates the claim. Going back to our hypothetical once again, the result will be the same. The plaintiff will provide a declaration stating that he never vandalized the car, and that must be taken as true. You are going to be in this action until the bitter end.

What was California thinking?

According to the notes of the legislation, the Legislators apparently thought this was a brilliant way to fight discrimination. You may recall the incident in Central Park, caught on video that went viral, where a white woman called 911 to report a black man who was complaining about her dog. I don’t know if the Legislators had that specific incident in mind, but it sure sounds like it, based on the comments:

“(a) It is the intent of the Legislature to end instances of 911 emergency system calls that are aimed at violating the rights of individuals based upon race, religion, sex, gender expression, or any other protected class. Existing law on false police reporting does not address the growing number of cases in which peace officers are summoned to violate the rights of individuals for engaging in everyday activities, such as those individuals essentially living their lives.

“(b) All Californians, including people of color, should have the liberty to live their lives, and to go about their business, without living under the threat or fear of being confronted by police. These prejudicial 911 emergency system calls cause mistrust between communities of color and institutions, and those calls further deteriorate community-police relations. This is especially true when the police are summoned as forces of exclusion. Thus, it is incumbent upon the Legislature to end the use of law enforcement as a personal force by people who harbor discriminatory animus.

“(c) This act is not intended to discourage individuals who are facing real danger, who want to report a crime, or who are experiencing a medical or psychiatric emergency from making a 911 emergency system call for assistance. However, this act will allow those who have been subject to unfair and prejudicial 911 emergency system calls to regain their agency by seeking justice and restitution through the criminal and civil court system.”

This sounds like a laudable goal, but the amendment could have been tailored to better achieve that goal, without opening the floodgates to every criminal who wants to use civil actions as a means to harass genuine victims. How will they “regain their agency?”

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.”

How Not to Write a Yelp Review

How to Write a Yelp Review
Picture a typical fight on the playground at an elementary school. One child gets mad at another because she lost at tetherball, so she screams, “I don’t like you and nobody else does either!” It’s not hurtful enough for the girl to say that she doesn’t like the other girl, she seeks to add credibility to her argument by speaking for the rest of humanity.

Some people never grow up. I get calls from potential clients, needing me to defend them against a defamation action for a review they posted on Yelp. A call I received today illustrates why these people find themselves being sued for defamation. Changing the facts to protect the confidentiality of the client, here is what happened:

The caller hired a contractor to add a room to her home. The contractor did his thing, but the caller wasn’t happy with the result. She then paid another contractor to come in and do the work the way she thought it should have been done. Then she sat down at her computer to tell the world via a Yelp review what she thought about the first contractor.

She wrote about her experience with the contractor, and why she was unhappy with the work he did. So far so good. I would defend to the death her right to post that review.

But like the girl on the school yard, a dry dissertation of the problems is just not stinging enough. Someone might still do business with this contractor, and she owes the world a duty to make sure that the no good, son-of-a-gun never gets another job. Continue reading

Can the Dead Be Defamed?

Defaming the DeadI don’t receive these calls very often, but they are heart wrenching when I do. I have received multiple calls over the years arising from television portrayals of deceased people. They typically arise from those “true detective” shows. An unsolved case is discussed, and the family of the prime suspect elects to point the finger at someone close to the case who has since died. A dead person is the perfect scapegoat, because he can’t defend himself.

As you can imagine, having the loving memory of a former, spouse, sibling and/or parent sullied by a false accusation of murder does not sit well with those involved. Their love-one is being defamed, and they call wanting to sue for defamation.

But consider the very basis of defamation. The damage that defamation causes is the loss of reputation AND the emotional distress that flows therefrom. We’ve all been taught not to speak ill of the dead, and no doubt it causes tremendous heartache for the family of the deceased when lies are told about him, but he isn’t here to suffer. This is why the law provides that you can’t defame the dead.

When I present this bad news to callers, inevitably it is followed up with the classic quantum of harm argument. Potential clients always look first to the harm that is being caused, and assume there must be a remedy.

“But these claims are destroying my life because now everyone thinks my deceased husband was a murderer. There must be something we can do.”

I understand this logic, and indeed it is seemingly embraced by the most fundamental of all legal maxims, “equity will not suffer a wrong to be without a remedy.”

The problem is the definition of “wrong”. If the law says that you can’t defame the dead, then the fact that you speak poorly of the dead does not make your speech defamatory, and you have thus committed no “wrong” in a legal sense. Thus, the fact that you are doing something that causes emotional distress to others does not mean that there is a basis for a legal action. Some vegans are no doubt very upset that there is so much meat being eaten around them, but they can’t sue because meat-eating is not a legal wrong. The harm suffered does not necessarily determine whether a wrong was committed.

Go here for a very interesting discussion of defaming the dead, with many historical examples.

Understanding the Wall of Wrong — Shaheed Sadeghi v. Delilah Snell

Shaheed Sadeghi and the wall of wrong

Shaheen Sadeghi and the Wall of Wrong.

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. Continue reading

Show Some Love for California’s Anti-SLAPP Statute

A real Jones for the Basketball coach

Not the coach in question.

I get frequent calls from people who have run afoul of the anti-SLAPP statute, basically asking, “what can we do about this terrible law?”

Here’s the deal. Every law eventually gets subverted. The Americans With Disabilities Act sounded like a great idea, but then you ended up with attorneys who use it as an extortion racket, forcing fast food restaurants to pay thousands because a counter was 17 ½ inches high instead of 18.

So it is with California’s anti-SLAPP statute. It is a great statute, and for the most part attorneys have not found an effective way to misuse it, except for right to appeal an adverse decision, which many now use as a delaying tactic. Opposing counsel in one of my cases recently brought a motion for permission to file a very late (by two years) anti-SLAPP motion on the eve of trial, and when the motion was quite properly denied, then filed an appeal from that denial. Of course I had no difficulty getting the Court of Appeal to dismiss the frivolous appeal, but it delayed the trial a month. Except for this type of abuse, in most other regards California’s anti-SLAPP law provides a very useful tool to get rid of lawsuits designed to silence free speech or frustrate the right of redress. The point is, if you are complaining about California’s SLAPP statute, and your complaint has nothing to do with an attorney using it for delay purposes, then you probably filed a SLAPP action and the system worked by getting rid of it.

However, in case you still have it out for California’s anti-SLAPP law, I bring you an example out of Illinois that should make you feel a little better. California pioneered the anti-SLAPP concept, and most states have used that law as a template, but that hasn’t prevented some from coming up with their own strange hybrids.

Enter the case of Steve Sandholm, a high school basketball coach/athletic director in Illinois. In the case of Sandholm v. Kuecker, some parents decided they didn’t like Sandholm’s coaching style, so they really went after him, hoping to get him replaced. They posted useful, positive comments such as “[he is] a psycho nut who talks in circles and is only coaching for his glory.” The efforts were to no avail, because the school board decided to keep him. However that decision only fanned the flames, and the parents kept up their campaign. Sandholm found some of the statements to be defamatory, so he brought a defamation action.

But wait. Illinois has an anti-SLAPP statute that states that speech and petition activities are “immune from liability, regardless of intent or purpose, except when not genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action, result, or outcome.” Wow that’s a broad standard. A school district is a government entity, and the parents were trying to get that government entity to do something (removing the coach), so did that fall under Illinois’ anti-SLAPP statute? If I read the statute correctly, that means that even if the parents got together and decided to fabricate lies about the coach, they are immune from a defamation action so long as those lies were “genuinely aimed at procuring a favorable government . . . outcome.” (I’m not saying that happened, I’m only using the case to present a hypothetical.) And how in the world is a court going to determine if the actions were “genuine”?

Incredibly, that’s exactly how the Court of Appeal interpreted the statute. Read this excellent summary of the case by John Sharkey to see just how convoluted the anti-SLAPP process can become.

Peer Review Process for Doctors is a Protected Activity Under SLAPP Statute

Anti-SLAPP Motion against doctor
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.

Is Rush Limbaugh Facing a Claim for Defamation?

Rush Limbaugh Liable for SlanderI’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.

Australian Defamation Case Illustrates Life Without the CDA

Internet Defamation on Twitter

"That J-Lo, she be crazy!"

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.

Lawyers Must Be Careful When Sending Demand Letters Out of State

Anti-SLAPP Motion Extortion

How Metabolic sees the case

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.

Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP
11 Orchard Road, Suite 106
Lake Forest, CA 92630

(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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