Internet Defamation

Morris & Stone Victory — Another Blow Against Internet Defamation

Defamation of Character on the Internet
A hard-fought victory for free speech.

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.

More Judges Catching Up to the Times

 

Internet Defamation Blog

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.

No, I Wasn’t Kidding About the Wisdom of Walking Away

Internet Defamation - Take the Settlement Fool

Just two weeks ago I posted comments on the wisdom of taking a walk-away settlement when you are a defendant with no moral high ground in a defamation action.  I told the story of how the defendant in the case I prosecuted was afforded the opportunity to take down the defamatory comments and walk away without paying any damages, rejected it, and now must pay over $200,000 to my client as a result of his hubris.

You’d think that might have at least given the defendant and his counsel in a different case a moment of pause in the trial that followed two weeks later.  My client sued the defendant, who then filed a frivolous cross-complaint, apparently thinking that would give him some leverage.  The parties had discussed settlement throughout the year-long litigation process, but the defendant had always insisted on money coming his way, and there was no way that was going to happen.

Come the day of trial, the judge conducted one final settlement conference, and my client, knowing the defendant doesn’t have much money anyway, graciously offered to just walk away.  There it was; that same moment in time discussed in my last posting, where the defendant is afforded the opportunity to avoid sending his life, or at the very least his finances, in a bad direction.  But the defendant refused and demanded payment of a ridiculous amount of money on his ridiculous claim.  My client declined.

With no settlement, the case proceeded to trial and I called the defendant as my first witness in a trial that both sides had estimated would last three days.  Two hours into my examination, the judge spontaneously announced that he had heard all he needed to hear, and unless defendant had some “miraculous evidence” he was going to find in favor of my client.  In chambers, he said to defense counsel, “Mr. Morris is very methodically cutting your client to pieces.”  He suggested the parties and attorneys talk settlement again.  My client said fine, and said he would dismiss the action in exchange for defendant paying the same ridiculous amount defendant had been demanding.  Defendant agreed, and we set up a ten year payment schedule, non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  Ouch.

If you got the tie-in between the photo above and the article, give yourself a prize.  It’s from the movie The Road Warrior, and the gentleman in the photo is imploring the people at the oil refinery to “just walk away” and let him and his warriors take the gasoline.  I think I may start dressing like that for settlement conferences.

Tony La Russa Drops Action Against Twitter

Tony La Russa

Even when a lawsuit is weak on merit it sometimes achieves its purpose.  I will have no part in filing a meritless lawsuit, but sometimes it is appropriate to push the envelope.

Take the case of Tony La Russa, famous baseball manager.  Like so many other well known people, someone hijacked his name and image on Twitter, leading many “followers” to believe that the musings coming from this Twitterer (Twitterite?) were coming from the real deal.  La Russa tried to persuade Twitter to intervene and remove the fake identity, but sure as there is a fail whale, the fine folks at Twitter refused to cooperate.

La Russa filed suit and got a lot of grief for doing so, with most legal experts citing the Communications Decency Act (CDA) as a barrier to the suit.  But, obviously, this is not a typical CDA situation.  Yes, La Russa was seeking to hold Twitter liable for the “postings” of third parties, and that is classic CDA material.  But there are some interesting side issues.  For example, a website cannot encourage visitors to post copyrighted e-books for download and then expect to escape liability under the CDA because third parties are the ones actually posting the books.  In that case, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act would trump the CDA.  Like a copyright, people have a pecuniary interest in there own identities.  Should Twitter be permitted to assist in those that would steal that identity?

The La Russa case will not be providing any answers to this question, because it has been withdrawn, but not before Twitter deleted the offending account.  Most are reporting this story as a victory for Twitter, but didn’t La Russa get exactly what he asked for in the first place?

For more on this story, go here.

Communications Decency Act Shields Craigslist from Liability

How Can Anyone Sue Peace Loving Craigslist?

I’ve explained here several times that the Communications Decency Act is a necessary evil because you could never have open forums for discussion on the Internet if the operators of the websites were required to read and approve every message posted. Perhaps the Amazons of the world would have the resources to hire a huge staff to monitor all postings, but any popular discussion site that started to attract thousands of visitors would likely be required to stop offering a public forum if it became responsible for the things posted by visitors.

Some attorneys still don’t understand this reality. Take the case of Richard M. Berman. Poor Richard was shot by someone using a handgun purchased from a for sale ad posted on Craigslist. He hired attorney Paul B. Dalnocky, who sued Craigslist for more than $10 million, claiming it was responsible for the handgun ending up in the bad guy’s hands. The civil complaint alleged Craigslist “is either unable or unwilling to allocate the necessary resources to monitor, police, maintain and properly supervise the goods and services” sold on its site. When interviewed for an article on Law.com, attorney Dalnocky said, “We weren’t seeing Craigslist as a publisher — we were seeing it as a regular business that should have monitored its business better. I mean, how can you run a business with millions of ads and have only 25 employees monitoring it?”

No, Mr. Dalnocky, the question is, how would a service like Craigslist be possible if attorneys could sue for things posted in those millions of ads? The answer is it wouldn’t be possible. You allege “millions” of ads are posted on Craigslist. Let’s assume a person could review 1000 ads during a work day. That’s probably not realistic, because that means the person would need to review more than two ads per minute (assuming an eight-hour work day with two 15 minute breaks). Some ads go on for pages so I don’t think one could really review more than two ads per minute, but let’s go with 1000 just to keep the numbers simple. Thus, Craigslist would need to hire 1000 employees for every one million ads posted. It’s going to be very difficult for old Craig to maintain his business model that permits me to post free ads for my 8-track tapes if he is required to hire thousands of employees.

And, Mr. Dalnocky, what would those thousands of employees be looking for, exactly? Guns can be legally sold, and I did not see anything in the court’s decision about any alleged illegality of the gun sale in question. Rather, your complaint alleged that Craigslist was liable because it breached its “duty of care to ensure that inherently hazardous objects, such as handguns, did not come into the hands of . . . individuals, such as Mr. Ortiz.” (Ortiz was alleged to have shot Richard Berman.)  What, in that ad, would have put the reviewer on notice that this gun sale was going to end badly?

The attorney representing Craigslist is no doubt a subscriber to the Internet Defamation Blog, and therefore knew that the Communications Decency Act (CDA) is not limited only to claims for defamation. Craigslist moved for dismissal under §230, which states that no “provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” and that no “cause of action may be brought and liability imposed under any State law that is inconsistent with this section.”

The court properly dismissed the case under the CDA because, let’s say it all together, a website operator cannot be held liable for comments (or ads) posted by third parties, and is not liable for failing to somehow monitor those comments (or ads).  One of the earliest cases involving the CDA was an action against Ebay.  Someone sued, claiming that Ebay should be held liable for the counterfeit items that were being posted and sold, trying to impose on it an obligation to review and investigate every ad.  Ebay prevailed in that action, and Craigslist properly prevailed in this one.

The full court decision can be found here.

Wikipedia Edits Result in Internet Defamation Action

Catherine Crier Sues for Internet Defamation

Catherine Crier

Catherine Crier is a former Dallas District Court judge who left the bench to launch a career as a television journalist.  Crier has worked as a correspondent for Court TV and the Fox News Channel.  This week she found herself on the other side of the bench, as the plaintiff in an Internet defamation action.

Crier is upset by changes that were made to her Wikipedia page.  Specifically, some moron defamer decided it would be clever to insert information about a disbarred Texas attorney named Catherine Shelton.  The defamer simply took a published article about Shelton, changed “Shelton” to “Crier” wherever it appeared, and inserted the revised article into Crier’s listing on Wikipedia.  Wikipedia affords anyone the opportunity to edit articles, and the open marketplace is supposed to result in a fairly accurate encyclopedia entry.  However, if the person is dedicated to inserting the false information, it becomes an editing war.  No doubt Crier decided to eschew that game, and went straight to the lawsuit.

Crier has already determined the IP address of the defamer, and will now ask 162nd District Judge Lorraine A. Raggio to issue a subpoena to AT&T (the Internet service provider) ordering it to identity of the owner of the specified Internet protocol address.

Procedurally this is a pretty standard case, although the Wikipedia aspect is a little different, since that site is unique in permitting the victim of defamation to make his or her own changes to the defamer’s comments.  But I put this case here as another example of the sort of nonsensical information that finds its way onto the Internet.  We fight for a free marketplace of ideas, but who would argue that this sort of behavior should enjoy any protection?  What possible motivation could the defamer have had for posting this falsified article, other than to spread malicious misinformation?

Crier’s petition can be found here.

Trial Judges Still Struggling With Application of Anti-SLAPP

anti-SLAPP does not protect defamatory speech

A recent decision by the California Court of Appeal, which reverses a trial court’s decision to dismiss the underlying defamation case, beautifully illustrates how trial courts still do not understand the anti-SLAPP statute. It’s unfortunate the plaintiff had to go through an appeal in order to educate this particular judge. The following summary of facts and quotes are taken from the Court of Appeal’s opinion. I apologize for the long post and multiple citations, but I want to have a place where people can be directed for the proper anti-SLAPP considerations and standards.

The action appears to have roots going back to 2003, when there was an altercation between Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Director of Hillel at UCLA, and Rachel Neuwirth, a journalist working in the Los Angeles area. Neuwirth alleged that Seidler-Feller had attacked her without provocation in October 2003. Shortly after this attack, she alleges in her complaint, “disciples of Seidler-Feller maintained in public print that [she] had provoked the attack by making inc[e]ndiary statements” to him. Neuwirth denied these allegations. As a result of her injuries, she said, she sought legal redress and reached an “amicable settlement” with Seidler-Feller and Hillel accompanied by a letter of apology from Seidler-Feller, “published in various tribunals,” in which he “acknowledged that the attack upon [Neuwirth] was unprovoked, that he took full responsibility for said attack and apologized for his actions.” Continue reading

Twitter comments basis for a Internet defamation lawsuit

Courney Love

Courtney Love

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.”

Right.

The Los Angeles Superior Court judge hearing the matter didn’t buy it either, and overruled the demurrer.

Nursing Student Dismissed Over Blog Posts

Happier Days at the Nursing School

Happier Days at the Nursing School

Another reminder that you will be judged by what you write.

A student dismissed from the University of Louisville’s nursing school because of her Internet postings has sued the university, alleging that it violated her First Amendment rights.

The nursing school expelled Nina Yoder on March 2, saying her MySpace postings “regarding patient activities and identification as a University of Louisville School of Nursing student violates the nursing honor code which you pledged to uphold,” according to a copy of her dismissal letter, which was attached to the suit.

In her blog postings, copies of which she attached to her own complaint, Yoder makes caustic comments about Christians and blacks. I attempted to go to the website to make my own determination about the appropriateness of her comments, but she appears to have taken down her MySpace page.

According to an article posted at courier-journal.com, the nursing school is upset because some of Yoder’s postings are about specific patients (although they are not mentioned by name). In one of her postings, she wrote about a birth she witnessed: “Out came a wrinkly bluish creature, all Picasso-like and weird, ugly as hell … screeching and waving its tentacles in the air.” I’m not sure a patient would want the miracle of her child’s birth described in that way by someone who should, like any medical professional, respect her privacy, but I can also see that as a failed attempt to humorously describe what she had seen.

But there was far more. The school officials were probably equally unimpressed when Yoder wrote about how the nursing school is in downtown Louisville, adjoining an area “inhabited by humanoids who have an IQ of 10 and whose needs and actions are basically instinctive. As in, all they do is ––––, eat, –––– and kill each other.” She did, however, graciously concede, “OK, maybe I am generalizing yet again.”

As discussed in my prior blog posting, Yoder and her supporters are using the “there’s so much trash on the Internet you can’t hold my trash against me” defense. As Yoder wrote in her letter requesting reinstatement to the nursing program, “If profanity was grounds for dismissal for the School of Nursing, the nursing school would go bankrupt.”

The court has not yet set a hearing date on Yoder’s request that the nursing school be ordered to reinstate her.  We’ll know then if the trash defense worked.

[UPDATE]  Thanks to Web Savy Med Student for providing me with an update on this case.  I was unable to find the court’s ruling, but according to Web Savy and other sources, Yoder took the case to court and was reinstated to the nursing school.  The court dodged any free speech issues, and instead decided the matter strictly on the honor code.  Although her comments were “objectively distasteful”, according to the court those comments did not deal with her profession and did not violate any confidentiality since the patient could not be identified.

Undefended Defamation Case Results in Huge Jury Verdict

It’s amazing what you can do when the defendant doesn’t show up at trial.

A South Florida jury has awarded a record $11.3 million in damages to a woman who was defamed by another woman on the Internet.

Sue Scheff of Weston, Fla., sued Carey Bock of Mandeville, La., in December 2003 over the messages posted calling her a crook, a con artist and a fraud, USA Today reported Wednesday. The dispute was centered on a referral business Scheff runs that helps parents of troubled children find appropriate schools, the newspaper said. After their transaction involving Bock’s two sons, Bock began posting the messages, the jury was told.

Bock was unable to pay an attorney and did not attend the Broward County, Fla., trial or enter a defense, and Scheff said she doubted she’d see any money at all.

Aaron Morris

Morris & Stone, LLP

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(714) 954-0700

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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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