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 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.
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.
The report of this defamation caught my eye because of the parties involved. There is a standard joke among attorneys, that if you find yourself suing widows, orphans or nuns, your practice has probably taken a bad turn. In this case, nuns were being sued for defamation.
It started when the nuns decided to sell an old painting they had laying around. The painting was in really bad shape, not even worth hanging, but it turned out to be by a well regarded artist, William-Adolphe Bouguereau. So the nuns had it appraised by an art dealer named Mark LaSalle. Based on his appraisal, the nuns agreed to sell the painting to Mark Zaplin for $450,000. Zaplin had the painting restored to its former glory, a fact that I think is crucial to this case, and turned around and sold it for $2.15 million, netting a tidy little profit.
The nuns sued LaSalle and Zaplin under a number of theories, claiming that Zaplin had been a straw buyer, and that LaSalle was working in concert with Zaplin and had conned the Daughters of Mary by intentionally under-appraising the painting in order to buy it at a bargain price. The two Marks counter-sued for defamation, because the nuns had made these same claims to the media. (In case you’re new here, you can never sue for defamation for things said in conjunction with a lawsuit, since those statements are privileged, but you can sue if the same statements are made to the media.)
Here is the part I find interesting and the main reason for this article. The nuns had a witness. An art dealer by the name of Paul Dumont claimed to know both LaSalle and Zaplin, and testified that LaSalle had told him that they could “make a handsome profit by giving the sisters a low appraisal value of between $350,000 and $450,000 and presenting a buyer who would pay the amount of our deliberate and intentionally inaccurate appraisal.” He claimed that LaSalle had asked him to find a “money man” who would act as a straw buyer.
Wow. Pretty strong stuff. So the nuns must have won, right? Actually, they went down in flames (can I say that about nuns?). A New York jury found against them on all of their claims, and instead awarded LaSalle $250,000 for defamation against Dumont and a church Bishop, and awarded Zaplin $75,000 against Dumont for defamation. LaSalle will also recover punitive damages.
But how can that happen with a witness who is specifically corroborating the story of the fraudulent appraisal and straw buyer? And therein lies the moral of this story. Continue reading
I am very selective with the cases I take, and will only represent the side of a case that should win if justice is done. Out of the many cases I turn down every week, I know that most of the rejected clients will continue to call other attorneys until they find an attorney with less stringent standards; an attorney who does not understand defamation law and/or simply does not care about the merits of the case, so long as he is paid. I then envision the horrible train wreck that is waiting at the end of that track.
Today I happened to come across a news story, reporting one of those train wrecks.
The case involved a scorned woman. She worked as a paralegal, and ended up dating her attorney boss. As is often the case when a supervisor dates a subordinate, the situation gets a little sticky when the employee is not doing her job, and the boss must discipline her. In this case, according to testimony at trial, the paralegal made a serious mistake, and after the attorney blasted her over the mistake, she became so belligerent that he sent her home for the day to cool off.
The paralegal would have none of that. She claimed that he had fired her, and sued for sexual harassment and wrongful termination, claiming that he terminated her because she would not continue a sexual relationship with him. He claimed that he never fired her, and that it was he that had broken up with her because she kept telling him he was fat. The attorney counter-sued the paralegal for defamation on the grounds that she was going around telling people that he was a sexual predator.
The result? The jury rejected all of the paralegal’s claims, but awarded the attorney $1.15 million in damages for the defamatory statements. As this is being written, the jury is in chambers, deciding how much to add to that figure for punitive damages.
Lesson to learn? Make sure you can back up your version of the facts before venturing into the legal process, especially if you are contemplating suing an attorney. I never would have taken this case because of the huge holes in the facts. You say you were fired? Can you please produce the termination documents one would normally expect to see in the case of a termination? Had you reported this alleged sexual harassment to anyone prior to the day he sent you home?
[Update] The jury came back and awarded $100,000 in punitive damages. Counsel for the paralegal filed a motion for new trial, with a rather novel theory. Her comments about the attorney being a sexual predator were made to other attorneys. Therefore, her counsel argued, the comments should be protected by the attorney-client privilege. Novel, but I doubt it will fly.
The defendant in this case was Elvia Orrillo-Blas, MD, an emergency room doctor at a hospital in the Inland Empire. When it was decided that her annual contract to provide services to the hospital would not be renewed, she took to the Internet, posting multiple defamatory messages on Craigslist.com about the director she felt was responsible for the decision not to renew her contract. In the anonymous postings, she would sometimes pretend to be a nurse or patient at the hospital when making her false claims about the director. The director retained us to sue for Internet defamation.
One problem we had to overcome in order to prevail in this action was the fact that the director was so well regarded that witness after witness talked glowingly about him during the trial. That was great to show the falsity of the statements published by the defendant doctor, but it also showed that the Plaintiff had not suffered a significant loss of reputation since the witnesses still loved him. The jurors later explained that this love-fest was the reason they awarded a relatively moderate amount of compensatory damages, but during the trial this left me to wonder if they were fully appreciating the malice behind what defendant had done.
Not to worry; the jury came roaring back in the punitive damages phase and made very clear with the amount of punitive damages that the defendant doctor needed to be punished for her conduct. In closing argument I had explained that cases like this actually promote freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas that we hold so dear in America, because those ideals are not served by knowing falsity. The jury apparently agreed.
As the icing on the cake, the judge then granted our request for injunctive relief, prohibiting the doctor from defaming our client in the future. Although each instance of defamation is actionable, repeatedly suing a serial defamer is not the best solution because of the expense and delay in getting to trial. With an injunction from the court, the doctor can actually be jailed if she repeats her false claims about our client and is found to be in contempt of court for defying the court’s order.
Trials are decided by humans with all their human experiences. Whether a judge or jury is deciding a case, your relative success will depend on the nature of those experiences, and your ability to persuade the trier of fact to set them aside when appropriate. Internet defamation cases necessarily require some understanding of the Internet by the trier of fact, or at least the willingness to absorb new concepts. Thankfully it has not happened to me in any of the cases I have handled, but I still hear horror stories about judges who make comments like, “no one really believes anything they read on this . . . In-ter-net,” or “what is this google you keep talking about?”
At least a Small Claims Judge in Canada appears to understand a thing or two about Internet defamation. In the case, the defendant took a disliking to a local dog kennel for whatever reason. She visited some animal discussion boards, and posted comments about the kennel, referring to it as a “puppy mill.” The kennel took exception to this characterization, and sued for defamation in Small Claims Court. (In one of my earliest postings, I sing the praises of suing for defamation in Small Claims Court. Take note how effective that can be.)
The court found in favor of the Plaintiff dog kennel, and awarded $14,000 in damages. The court correctly determined that calling a dog kennel a “puppy mill” is a bad thing. But what caught my eye was the simple logic of the judge, the sort of logic that sometimes eludes other judges. First he was upset that these postings were made on the Internet, recognizing that “the use of the Internet worsens the defamation.” That may seem extremely self-evident to most of us, but remember those aforesaid judges that still view that Internet as a fad among kids that will soon pass. The judge also stated that the defamation was “particularly malicious” because the purpose of the defendant was to put out of business a kennel that supported a family of 11.
Wow. A judge that recognizes that Internet defamation can be more egregious than verbal defamation, and who views the conduct from a real world perspective of how it impacts the people behind the business. Thank you Canada.
Another blogger learned this week that you are judged by what you say.
Tara Richerson is a teacher in Washington. She had been blogging since 2004 and many of her postings were about her job. According to court records, when she was demoted from her position as a coach at the school, she wrote the following missive:
“Save us White Boy! I met with the new me today: the person who will take my summer work and make it a full-time year-round position. … But after spending time with this guy today, I think Boss Lady 2.0 made the wrong call in hiring him. … He comes across as a smug know-it-all creep. And that’s probably the nicest way I can describe him. … And he’s white. And male. I know he can’t help that, but I think the District would have done well to recruit someone who has other connections to the community. … Mighty White Boy looks like he’s going to crash and burn.”
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Richerson’s blog contained “several highly personal and vituperative comments” that justified the Central Kitsap School District’s decision to transfer her from her job as a curriculum specialist and instructional coach to a classroom teaching position. The court found that Richerson’s speech was disruptive, eroded work relationships and interfered with her job performance, which involved mentoring teachers.
“Common sense indicates that few teachers would expect that they could enter into a confidential and trusting relationship with Richerson after reading her blog,” the court wrote in its Tuesday opinion. “Accordingly, the district court did not err in concluding that the legitimate administrative interests of the school district outweighed Richerson’s First Amendment interests.”
The court ruled that Richerson’s blog attacking co-workers, the union and the school district was not protected speech, and therefore she was not unlawfully demoted over it.
According to court records, Richerson was transferred out of her coaching job in July 2007 after school officials discovered her blog months earlier. Another of the blog entries that Richerson came under fire for was one entry in which she allegedly attacked a teacher and union negotiator, who complained to school officials about it. It read: “What I wouldn’t give to draw a little Hitler mustache on the chief negotiator.”
The lesson to learn is that you can and will be held accountable for the things you say. Even if your comments do not cross the line into defamation, they may still be considered inappropriate for other reasons. It is disingenuous for people like Richerson to cry foul and cite the First Amendment when they are held responsible for their own comments. The First Amendment does not state that you can say whatever you want with no fear of repercussion. If someone feels strongly enough about an alleged wrong to blog about it, then they should be willing to stand by those convictions.
The oral argument in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal is fascinating, and can be heard in its entirety here. I explain to clients that judges and justices tend to paint with a broad brush, and if you find yourself arguing technicalities and minutia, you are probably not going to prevail. Richerson’s attorney did an outstanding job, but he was forced to argue that the adverse job action was based on benign blog posts, not the post set forth above. That was a tough argument to sell.
Twitter comments (along with others) have now become the basis for a Internet defamation lawsuit.
Courtney Love, always a class act, has been posting “tweets” about fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir, also known as Boudoir Queen. Simorangkir claims that Love failed to pay money that was owed to her. Love claims otherwise, and refered to Simorangkir as a “nasty lying hosebag thief”, as well as accusing her of being a drug addict and a prostitute, according to the Associated Press.
Assuming the comments were false, the statements are clearly defamatory, but the case will still present some interesting issues if it ever makes it to trial. Defamation is always about reputation, and defamatory remarks do not always translate to loss of reputation. Given the context of the statements and the person making them, will anyone believe that Simorangkir is guilty of the acts claimed by Love?
[Update] In March 2011, Love settled the Internet defamation lawsuit by paying Dawn Simorangkir a reported $430,000. So did Love learn anything from this experience? Apparently not.
Now she is being sued by her former attorney, Rhonda Holmes. Ms. Holmes is piqued that Love allegedly tweeted:
“I was fucking devastated when Rhonda J Holmes Esq of San Diego was bought off.”
Love is also alleged to have stated that she had been “hiring and firing lawyers” and claimed that Holmes had “disappeared” and stopped taking her calls after “they got to her.”
No reasonable person could interpret these statements as meaning anything other than Love was accusing Holmes of taking a bribe, but Love’s current attorney argued the point anyway. In a demurrer to the complaint he claimed that “there is no limit to one’s imagination regarding the possible meaning of a phrase like “they got to her.”
The Los Angeles Superior Court judge hearing the matter didn’t buy it either, and overruled the demurrer.