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Internet Defamation

Another Example of How Facebook Can Kill Your Lawsuit

banana peel

In today’s cautionary tale, a woman, Nancy Nicolauo, was bitten by a tick, and later began suffering symptoms such as numbness, fatigue and lower back pain. Things got worse, and she eventually had problems walking and was confined to a wheelchair.

Given the tick bite, Lyme disease was suspected, but the results came back as negative. She went to a passel of doctors, and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Nine years after the symptoms started, she got tested again for Lyme disease, and this time the results came back positive. Nicolaou decided to sue for medical malpractice, claiming her medical issue had been improperly diagnosed, causing her to suffer for all those years.

Now comes the key issue. Nicolaou received the results from the Lyme discease test in 2010, and filed her suit in 2012. She claimed she was within the two year statute of limitations (SOL) for a medical malpractice claim because she did not “discover” the misdiagnosis until she received the test results in 2010. But when a claim is based on discovery, the SOL runs from the date that the plaintiff “knew or should have known” of the negligence.

However, counsel for defendants had done a little snooping into Nicolaou’s Facebook postings. As argued by defense counsel, “As underscored by the trial court, on Feb. 14, 2010, Mrs. Nicolaou posted, ‘I had been telling everyone for years i thought it was lyme…,’ to which one of her Facebook friends responded, ‘[Y]ou DID say you had Lyme so many times!'”

Thus, as evidenced by her own Facebook postings, Nicolaou had suspected “for years” that she was suffering from Lyme disease. Therefore, she “knew or SHOULD HAVE KNOWN” that the doctors had misdiagnosed her condition years earlier. The court did not agree that the clock did not start ticking on the SOL until she had actual confirmation from the lab test. She was under a reasonable duty to investigate her suspicions.

The trial court dismissed her claims on a motion for summary judgment, and that decision was upheld by the appellate court.

Posting on Facebook is a little like playing poker with all your cards face up on the table. It can be done, but the other side knows exactly what you have.

How to Stop Defamation When You Can’t Afford an Attorney

Bankruptcy - Business Person holding an empty wallet

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

Can a Court Order Someone Not to Defame You?

Temporary Restraining Order
I get many calls from victims of Internet defamation who want me to go to court and get an order to stop the defamation. In other words, they want a court order that stops someone from speaking or publishing statements that the victims deems to be defamatory. Is that possible?

Like most legal questions, the answer is, “it depends.”

California law is very clear that after a trial has determined that the statements being made are defamatory, the court can order the defendant to stop making those statements. The reason is that defamatory speech is not protected, so once it has been found to be defamatory, the court can order the defendant not to repeat the defamatory statements. Once the court has issued such an order, it can be enforced just like any other court order, with the court assessing sanctions and even jail time if the defendant refuses to comply.

The much tougher challenge is getting a court to order a defendant to stop defaming the victim before there has been a trial. Typically, it takes at least a year to take a matter to trial, and that may be far too long for the victim. A temporary injunction can be obtained in a matter of days, so that affords a much faster remedy if it is available.

But there is a problem. An injunction is usually issued with little or no time for the defendant to oppose it. The procedure is that the plaintiff files an ex parte application with just 24 hours notice to the other side. The plaintiff’s attorney may have taken weeks to prepare a carefully crafted application supported by any number of declarations from witnesses, but the defendant gets just 24 hours to put together an opposition. Indeed, it’s far worse, because notice must be given 24 hours in advance, but the application may not be served until just four hours before the hearing, depending on the procedure followed by a particular court. If good cause can be shown, the ex parte application can be sought with no notice to the other side. A defendant could be ordered to stop speaking before the judge has ever heard his side of the story. Is that fair? Continue reading

Morris & Stone Wins $1.5 Million for Internet Defamation Victims

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.

Defamation is Bad, but it Doesn’t Justify Chilling Free Speech

Blocked in Canada

Our neighbors to the North are very American-like, until you get to issues of free speech. Most view Canada as the “least protective of free speech in the English-speaking world.” Reasonable minds can differ on some of Canada’s laws, such as prohibiting the media from identifying criminals until they have been convicted, but most of the law is still based on policies designed to prevent any criticism of the government. Canadians can be held liable by English-Canadian courts for comments on public affairs, about public figures, which are factually true, and which are broadly believed.

A recent parody video posted on You Tube illustrates just how lacking the concept of free speech is in Canada. The video is a fake cable company ad posted by Extremely Decent Films. It does not mention any cable company by name, and indeed it is specifically directed at American cable companies. Nonetheless, someone lodged a complaint in Canada, and that was sufficient to scare You Tube into removing the video, given the vagaries of Canada’s libel laws (although the video has since been reposted in response to articles such as this one).

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.”

Morris & Stone Defamation Victory – Hair Transplant Doctor Stipulates to $150,000 Judgment

Internet Defamation Victory

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.

Calling Someone a Liar is Defamatory, Judge

Defamation on the Internet Calling Someone a Liar
I run into this attitude from judges occasionally. Thankfully, I’ve always been able to turn them around, but when I read about it, it still raises my hackles a little.

The attitude of which I speak was most recently illustrated by a New York judge named Harold Baer. The case involved a couple of former girlfriends of Matthew Couloute Jr., a New York Lawyer. The women went to the website LiarsCheatersRUs.com and allegedly posted bad comments about Couloute. (One denies making the posts, the other says they were truthful.)

If the comments had been limited to statements about how he was a cheap date or a lousy kisser, I would defend to the death their right to say such things. But as is often the case, someone who is mad enough to go to such a hate site is someone who wants to inflict pain, so they stray far afield. One of the women allegedly posted the comment, “He is very, very manipulating, he’s an attorney so he’s great at lying and covering it up without batting an eye.”

In anyone’s book, that is defamatory. The statement “great at lying” states not only that he has lied, but that he had lied on multiple occasions to the point that he is great at it. The “without batting an eye” comment means that he has no compunction against lying, so that is a slam on his ethics. But here was the judge’s reasoning for throwing out the case:

“The average reader would know that the comments are ’emotionally charged rhetoric’ and the ‘opinions of disappointed lovers.'”

With all due respect Judge (Judges hate it when you say that), that does not make the comments non-defamatory. Yes, the circumstances of a statement can dictate whether the statement was meant to be taken as true, but you don’t get to call someone a liar and get a pass because the reader knows you were mad when you said it. The circumstance that allows you to get away with calling someone a liar is if the reader would know that you simply don’t have sufficient knowledge to know whether someone is a liar, as illustrated by another case I wrote about.

Additionally, the judges comments are really demeaning toward women. I can picture him patting the heads of the defendants, saying, “there, there little ladies; you are obviously just jealous lovers and didn’t mean what you said.”

Now, in the judge’s defense, Couloute made the huge mistake of not hiring Morris & Stone to prosecute the action, and as a result it appears the law firm he did hire failed to properly plead the case. According to this article, the judge “also refused to let Couloute revise his suit to include charges of defamation.” Thus it appears that Couloute’s attorney was trying to prosecute the case under an interference with prospective economic advantage claim. That is supported by another statement in the article, that the judge said “Couloute failed to prove the women were using their words to poison clients against him.”

The moral of the story? Know that when you sue for defamation, depending on the judge, you can run into some very provincial attitudes.

Britain’s ASA Announces that Restaurant Reviews May Not Be Trustworthy

Food Poisoning Internet Defamation
I found this news squib interesting because it follows the precise example I often use to explain the difference between opinion and a statement of fact, and it shows how one country is dealing with reviews posted for extortionist purposes.

First, the example. If you eat at a restaurant and later post a review that says the food tasted like poison, you are probably safe from a claim for defamation. Most would agree that your statement is mere hyperbole; that you are offering your opinion that the food tasted bad, not that you actually meant it contained poison.

On the other hand, if you say that the food did, indeed, poison you, then you’d better be able to back it up with hard evidence. The first cannot be measured – what you think poison tastes like is your opinion. The second statement can be tested, because we can see if the food that day could have led to food poisoning.

Now to the real life application. It seems that one of the latest fads in Internet extortion is for a reviewer to post a review claiming that he suffered food poisoning at a restaurant. The extortionist then offers to accept, say, $5,000 for the pain and suffering of the poisoning and, oh, incidentally, offers to take down the terrible review as well. Other times the offer to remove the post never comes, because the false allegation of food poisoning is from a competitor.

This scam has become so rampant in Great Britain that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has informed TripAdvisor that it can no longer claim or even imply that its restaurant reviews can be trusted. The news item added that it is not always the case that the reviewer knows he or she is publishing a falsehood. When one suffers legitimate food poisoning, they almost always blame the last place they ate, not realizing that the incubation period for a good case of food poisoning is usually one or two days, and can take as long as a week. In most cases, it is impossible to know which restaurant is responsible for the poisoning except by finding a common restaurant among a group of victims.

Privileged Statements Become Defamatory Outside Court

Thinking about yesterday’s post, I thought I should add one more point to the discussion of how false statements made in conjunction with a court action cannot form the basis for a defamation lawsuit.

I explained that under California Civil Code Section 47, and similar code sections in probably every other State, declarations made as part of a legal action are privileged, and therefore do not constitute defamation, since by definition defamation must consist of a false, unprivileged statement.

And the definition of a “legal action” is very broad, and can include statements made in anticipation of litigation. For example, Joe Client goes to an attorney and falsely tells him that Jane Defendant embezzled money from the company. The attorney sends a nasty letter to Jane, setting forth the lie about the embezzlement and stating that if she does not return the money in ten days, he will be filing a lawsuit against her.

Can Jane sue for defamation? After all, Joe Client just told a lie about her to a third party, the attorney. The answer is no. The statements to the attorney were made in anticipation of litigation, and are therefore privileged.  (But whether a statement was made in anticipation of litigation can be a hotly contested issue, so be sure to run it past an attorney.)

But it is often the case that someone who lies in conjunction with litigation, will not confine himself to telling those lies only in conjunction with that litigation. As an example, I offer the current divorce case of singer Paul Anka versus his wife, Anna Anka. Paul claims they had a prenuptial agreement, Anna says they did not. She claims that if he produces a signed prenuptial agreement, that will mean he forged her signature because she never signed such a document. (I have no idea who is telling the truth, and offer the case only as an illustrative fact pattern.)

Falsely accusing someone of forgery is defamation, but not if it is said in court. So, she can sign court declarations all day, and testify on the stand, that Paul is a forger, and there would be nothing he could do in terms of defamation.

But Paul is suing for defamation, because he claims she made the statement, or at least implied it, to reporters. Such a statement, if she made it and if it is false, is pure defamation that enjoys no immunity since it was made outside the litigation context.

When clients call to say they want to sue because of lies contained in a court document, I explain why that is not possible, but tell them to be on the look out for the statement being made outside of the litigation. It is often the case that the person will have told the same lies to friends or neighbors, posted them on a blog, or published them via Facebook.

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Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP

Tustin Financial Plaza
17852 17th St., Suite 201
Tustin, CA 92780

(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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