Tables Turned on Plaintiffs in Internet Defamation Case

The following Internet defamation case is illustrative of some points I have raised here and elsewhere.

You may have heard of the Internet defamation case involving a website called AutoAdmit. Two Yale students sued a number of defendants, claiming they were defamed on the site’s message board. One of the named defendants was Anthony Ciolli. He was involved with AutoAdmit, but claimed he had nothing to do with the message board where the defamatory messages were published. The plaintiffs apparently came to agree with this contention, and voluntarily dismissed Ciolli in 2007.

Now Ciolli has turned the tables on the plaintiffs. According to an ABA Journal article, Ciolli is suing them along with their lawyers. Ciolli alleges that the negative publicity generated by the suit caused the law firm of Edwards, Angell, Palmer & Dodge to withdraw an employment offer. He is suing for wrongful initiation of civil proceedings, abuse of process, libel, slander, false-light invasion of privacy, tortious interference with contract and unauthorized use of name or likeness, according to the story.

Anthony Ciolli
Anthony Ciolli

As I’ve said before, amateur attorneys will name too many defendants, thinking the more the merrier and hoping that even if someone is improperly named, some small settlement can be extracted from them in exchange for a dismissal. You see this all the time in construction defect cases, where they name every subcontractor on a job, even though it is abundantly clear that some of the subs could not have possible contributed to the problems.  With the permission of my construction clients, I long ago instituted a zero-tolerance policy whereby we refused to pay any groundless settlement, no matter how small.  The risk is that you could end up going to trial when you could have escaped for, say, $5,000.   However, to date, that has never happened.

The problem with naming too many defendants is illustrated by this case, where one of the named defendants did not go quietly into the night even though he was voluntarily dismissed.  The better method is to file against the key defendants and conduct discovery to determine if any other defendants can properly be named.  So, Ciolli may have a righteous claim that he should never have been named in the action.

But with that said, it appears that Ciolli and his counsel are making a very similar mistake by bringing too many causes of action. Let’s say a plaintiff gets creative with his pleading and sues a defendant under five causes of action. If he prevails on one or two of the causes, that means the defendant prevailed on the other three or four causes of action. The defendant can argue that he is the prevailing party, which may entitle him to costs and attorney fees. Further, the defendant can sue for malicious prosecution on those causes.

Keeping in mind that I have not reviewed the pleadings, I do not practice in the jurisdiction in question and I am relying on facts as reported by various news sources, I am still willing to predict that Ciolli will lose on five of the aforesaid causes of action.

The first major hurdle Ciolli is going to face is proving that being denied a job with a big law firm is a bad thing. If the comments by the plaintiffs truly prevented Ciolli from going down the big firm path, he should be sending fruit baskets, not suing them.  If the allegations are true, then the plaintiffs saved Ciolli from a fate of working 70-hour weeks for $37 per hour. See, Saving Adil Haq’s Career Life — and Yours, and Why Big Firms Don’t Work.

But setting the big firm aspects aside, the case appears to contain problematic causes of action.  For example, mis-naming a defendant is not an abuse of process; the process is absolutely correct, it is just against the wrong person. Further, if the comments about Ciolli by the original plaintiffs were made in the litigation context, I’m sure the jurisdiction in question will have a litigation privilege against defamation. (If the plaintiffs made the statements outside of the litigation, then Ciolli could prevail.) And while the standard may be different in Pennsylvania, in California the interference with contract action would never survive.

I hope the case goes to trial so my legal theories can be tested, but that may not happen. At this point the parties are still fighting over jurisdiction. The Pennsylvania federal judge decided that Ciolli could conduct discovery to determine whether the action satisfied jurisdictional requirements. I’ll continue to monitor the case.

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Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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View Aaron Morris, Trial Attorney and Partner at Morris & Stone, with emphasis on Free Speech and Defamation Law.

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