Is there a way to stop Internet defamation when you have limited funds to hire an attorney?
Here’s a call I get a few times a week. Someone somewhere has managed to upset someone else, usually over a miscommunication. Alternatively, it will be an ex-boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse that feels they were done wrong. The offended party responds to the perceived offense by going onto various social networking sites and posting false, defamatory statements; Facebook is a popular choice for the vitriol. The victim of these accusations wants my assistance in getting the statements taken down.
I can do that, but at a cost. And while I sometimes take a case on a contingency basis (receiving a percentage of the amount recovered), most of the time such an arrangement is not workable since the primary goal of the action is to remove the defamatory materials, not for damages. An attorney cannot take a case on a contingency basis if there are no damages or if the defendant has no ability to pay. Indeed, in many instances an attorney should not take a defamation case on a contingency basis since that will then make the case about money instead of being about solutions.
Is there a solution for those who can’t afford representation? Continue reading
In this case, we represented a business and the individual who owns that business. The defendant, a medical doctor named Pankaj Karan, was starting his own business, MDTelexchange, and traveled to an overseas company also owned by our client (we’ll call that the “foreign company”) and entered into a contract for the creation of some custom call center software.
And that is where the divergence in the two versions of the story begins. Our clients asserted (and proved at trial) that the working software was delivered on time by the foreign company. The defendant, Dr. Karan, claimed otherwise, and blamed the failure of his start-up company on the software.
Dr. Karan’s claims never made sense, because while the software would have been useful in his business, it was in no way essential. Blaming the software for the failure of the business was akin to saying a business failed due to a lack of business cards. But for whatever reason, Dr. Karan chose to blame our clients, and in an email announced that he was going to “work night and day to inflict the maximum amount of financial pain that is allowed under the law.” To that end, he ignored the fact that his contract was with the foreign company, and instead attacked our client personally, along with his other company, taking to the Internet to trash their reputations.
This is a scenario that I see over and over in defamation cases. Someone becomes unhappy with a business or individual, and decides to criticize them on-line. It might even begin with a laudable motive – just putting out the word to the public to avoid a business that did not satisfy the critic. I will vigorously defend the right of anyone to go on line and publish a legitimate criticism of a business.
But something happens that takes the person beyond a legitimate review. As the person types the words, he or she decides it’s just not stinging enough and won’t cause enough harm. In this case, Dr. Karan must have felt that a legitimate review of the foreign company, stating that in his opinion the software did not work as promised or was not delivered on time, just wasn’t hurtful enough. He posted two articles on his own blog, and sent an email to our clients’ customers. In the email and postings, Dr. Karan’s comments had almost nothing to do with the alleged problems with the software. Indeed, he abandoned his claim that the software was late, and instead claimed that it had never been delivered at all. He added that our client had cheated an employer ten years earlier, and that his company had failed to pay vendors hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although our clients had never received a single complaint from a customer, Dr. Karan claimed that “they are swindlers of the highest kind and have milked many of their clients of money and time.”
At trial, Dr. Karan could not identify a single customer that our clients had “swindled”, he could not identify a single vendor they had failed to pay, could not specify how he had cheated his former employer, and acknowledged that the software was in fact delivered. Today, an Orange County jury, known for being very conservative with damage awards, awarded $1.5 million jointly and individually to both of our clients for the damage to their reputations and business, caused by Dr. Karan.
In a standard civil action, the plaintiff has the burden to prove the case. This is true in a defamation action as well, but since truth is a defense to defamation, the burden of proving a statement is true falls on the defendant. I can’t fathom how defendant thought he would get away with what he published in this email and on his blog, but I think he may have thought he would be safe because we could not prove a negative. In other words, how do you show that you have never defrauded any of your customers? Bring in every customer you have ever worked with to testify that you did not defraud them? That would be impossible, and that is why the law puts the burden on defendant to prove the TRUTH of the statements. Dr. Karan could not prove his statements were true, and was therefore liable for Internet defamation.
Pankaj Karan was admirably represented at various times during the action by Randolph Catanese and Douglas Hume from Catanese & Wells, David R. Calderon from Barth, Berus & Calderon, and Palak Chopra from the Law Offices of Palak Chopra.
[UPDATE — January 2, 2014] Dr. Karan did not go silently into the good night. His attorneys appealed the $1.5 million verdict, claiming there was insufficient evidence to support an award of that size. To that claim, and in denying the appeal, the court opened its opinion with the sentence, “All things considered, appellant Dr. Pankaj Karan got off cheaply in the trial court.” Better yet, in commenting on our brief, the court stated:
[Dr. Karan] has misstated the record in numerous particulars, as shown in a respondents’ brief so devastating it has left Karan, like Job, with no reply but silence and a hand over his mouth.
How to Handle Mixed Causes of Action?
In a ruling that makes perfect sense, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that an anti-SLAPP motion can be used to excise some allegations in a cause of action that involve protected activities, while leaving intact those allegations that do not fall under the statute.
In Cho v. Chang (LASC case number B239719), Jessica Chang sued a former co-worker, Howard Cho, for sexual assault and harassment. Chang filed a cross-complaint that was a clear SLAPP, because the two causes of action alleged defamation and infliction of emotional distress based on the things Chang had said about Cho to her employer, EEOC and DFEH. As I have said here many time, statements to government entities are protected, and the statements to the employer are a natural part of the redress process, and therefore are also protected.
But wait a second. The cross-complaint also alleged that the statements by Chang to her co-workers were defamatory. In some circumstances statements to co-workers can be protected, and indeed that was the argument made by Chang, but here the connection was too attenuated. As the court stated,
“Chang argues that her comments to co-workers related to matters of ‘public interest,’ but that is without merit. A public interest involves more than mere curiosity or private information communicated to a small number of people; it concerns communications to a substantial number of people and some connection with the public interest rather than a private controversy.”
So, if the allegations about the statements to co-workers state a valid action for defamation and infliction of emotional distress, must that baby be thrown out with the bath water just because it is contained in the same cause of action that include protected speech? Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson, and the Court of Appeal, answered “no” to that question. They both determined that an anti-SLAPP motion could be used surgically to remove just the allegations of protected activities and speech, while leaving any cognizable claims.
Nonetheless, the anti-SLAPP motion was successful, at least in part, so did Chang recover her attorney fees? In that regard, Judge Johnson was not very charitable. The judge noted that a party prevailing on an anti-SLAPP motion is normally entitled to an award of attorney fees, but said:
“While Chang’s motion has been granted in part, the ruling has produced nothing of consequence. Cho is still entitled to pursue his causes of action for defamation and [intentional infliction of emotional distress], and the evidence to be presented at trial is largely the same. Chang should have been aware that Cho’s allegations about private comments were viable, and she should have addressed the other allegations in a more focused and less burdensome manner (such as a traditional motion to strike or a motion in limine). Chang’s request for an award of fees and costs is denied.”
It is never defamation to report a fact, even if that fact is that a person was charged with a crime they did not commit. I understand why callers sometimes don’t understand this distinction. The completely innocent caller was falsely arrested, so it seems like a newspaper that reports the arrest is somehow making a false statement that the caller committed a crime. But look closer, caller. The paper did not report that you committed the crime, the paper reported that you were ARRESTED for the crime. Truth is an absolute defense to any defamation claim, and it is true that you were arrested.
What I don’t understand is how so many attorneys miss this point and pursue doomed defamation claims for their clients.
A recent example of this that caught my eye is a case out of Nevada. As reported by the Las Vegas Sun, the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche was hired to perform an audit of a company called Global Cash Access Holdings, Inc., which is a publicly traded company that provided cash access services to the Nevada gaming industry.
The accounting firm uncovered information from an FBI bulletin which claimed that the two men who founded the company – Robert Cucinotta and Karim Maskatiya – were involved in criminal activity. As they were required to do by law, Deloitte & Touche disclosed this information to the audit committee. Cucinotta and Maskatiya were not happy with this disclosure, and felt it amounted to defamation because they were never convicted of any crimes and there was no evidence that they did anything criminal. They sued Deloitte & Touche, claiming that the disclosure cost the company $400 million in market capitalization and cost them $100 million personally.
But can you see why the comments by Deloitte & Touche were not actionable defamation? The accounting firm simply reported information that was contained in the FBI bulletin, as it was required by law to do. Certainly if those allegations against two principals of the company proved to be true it would greatly impact the value of the company, so that information was quite properly reported.
The Nevada Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Michael Cherry, said, “We agree with our sister jurisdictions that those who are required by law to publish defamatory statements should be privileged in making such statements.” In this case the court said Deloitte’s communication to the audit committee of the cash access company was required by the federal securities law.
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.
We are seeing more and more Twitter defamation cases. Many have the false impression that they can say anything on the Internet, and for some strange reason, that sense multiplies while creating a Twitter post. Perhaps because so few words are used, the person thinks they can’t get into much trouble.
In this case, New Zealand cricket player Chris Cairns sued Lalit Modi, the commissioner of the Indian Premier League, after Modi posted a 24-word tweet, stating that Cairns had “been sacked from an Indian Cricket League team (Chandigarh Lions) because of match-fixing”. Cairns had stated that he quit due to knee problems from a charity walk in 2008.
Cairns testified that the comment had destroyed him in the cricketing community, and the court agreed, awarding him £90,000 in damages. That equals 143,442 in U.S. dollars, or about $5,977 per word.
Watch what you tweet.
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.
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.