I just wish counsel would run their defamation cases past me before filing. Here is a tale of a SLAPP that should have been spotted a mile away.
The tale starts with an article in OC Weekly. The article was about a guy named Shaheen Sadeghi. The article was extremely favorable to Sadeghi, referring to him as the “Curator of Cool” and discussing his amazing success in Orange County. OC Weekly even put his visage on the cover of the paper. Truly, it was a positive article that most would kill for.
But everyone has their detractors, and Sadeghi’s was a woman named Delilah Snell. After disclosing that Snell happens to be the girlfriend of a OC Weekly editor, the article reports on a dustup between Snell and Sadeghi, as told by Snell. Here is what the article said:
Still, some say Sadeghi will do whatever it takes to succeed. Delilah Snell, owner of Road Less Traveled, a shop in Santa Ana that sells environmentally friendly gifts and home goods, met with him in 2008 to discuss an opportunity to move to the Camp. (Full disclosure: Snell is the girlfriend of OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano.) She says the rent rate he gave was way too high, at least triple what she was paying, and she declined the offer. Then, she claims, he made a threat. “He basically said to me, ‘If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business,'” she says.
Snell, co-founder of the Patchwork Indie Arts & Crafts Festival and a pioneer in Orange County’s eco-movement, believes her store is the model for the Camp’s SEED People’s Market, an airy, 12,000-square-foot gallery-type outlet that sells sustainable products and handmade crafts. Sadeghi owns the store with his wife, Linda. Snell claims that SEED has approached many of the vendors featured at Road Less Traveled and even used a photo of her shop in a promotional email sent out to customers. (The Weekly has a copy of the email.)
The article then goes on to tell Sadeghi’s side of the story:
Of Snell’s accusations, Sadeghi responds, “I think she’s full of it.” He says his business plan for SEED was dated “five years before she developed a business plan.”
“It’s a whole different store, whole different vibe,” he says, “and it has nothing to do with Road Less Traveled.”
The article then returns to singing the praises of Sadeghi, providing examples of how he is beloved by his tenants at his business centers like The Lab in Costa Mesa.
Sadeghi sued Snell in Orange County Superior Court, alleging in his complaint that Snell “orally accused Mr. Sadeghi of threatening to copy Ms. Snell’s business idea and plan if Ms. Snell did not move into Plaintiff’s retail center.” Sadeghi then alleged causes of action for slander, slander per se, libel, libel per se, invasion of privacy/false light, intentional interference with economic prospective advantage (sic), negligent interference with economic prospective advantage (sic), unfair competition, and injunctive relief. Whew! All arising from the statements Snell allegedly made to the OC Weekly, claiming that Sadeghi had said “If you don’t move into my center, I will copy your business.”
A Quick Aside to Discuss the “Wall of Wrong”.
A potential client will call me, and during the call will tell me about 20 evil deeds committed by the defendant. They have been horribly wronged, and they want to sue. Fair enough, but for a legal action each wrongful deed must be viewed independently to determine if it is actionable. I call the wrongful acts the “Wall of Wrong”, and each wrongful act is an item on that wall. I explain to the client that to determine if there is a case, we must walk up to the wall, take down each item and examine it independently to see if it will support an action. If not, it is tossed away never to be discussed again.
The reason this exercise is so important is because the client has a perception of being slammed by the defendant, and is absolutely convinced that all that wrongdoing must equate to an action, but when all the conduct that does not support the action is stripped away, the client will often see that what is left remaining is pretty petty.
So let’s take Mr. Sadeghi to the Wall of Wrong to see if he has a defamation action. Continue reading
I recently reported on a Twitter defamation case in Australia, and how strange things can get without a law the Communications Decency Act. Now comes a case out of India.
India has a police unit called the Cyber Crime Investigation Cell (CCIC). Although I don’t want to see defamation criminalized, because that then gives the government the power to silence unpopular speech, I do admit the thought of an agency you could turn these things over to is slightly appealing.
In the case in India, the CCIC is investigating a complaint filed by actor Pooja Bedi against an anonymous Twitterer (Tweeter?, One who Tweets?), for allegedly defaming her on Twitter. According to Bedi’s complaint to the cyber crime unit, someone has been trying to tarnish her image on Twitter. Bedi has also alleged someone was threatening violence and writing ill about her. “These things are serious in nature and need to be investigated,” said Bedi in her complaint.
However Bedi said after the police complaint was filed, the accused deleted her account and changed her Twitter ID to @missbollyB, even apologizing to Bedi through her posts. Cyber crime cell officers said they had registered a case of defamation based on Bedi’s complaint. The police have sent a request to US authorities to provide information necessary for the probe.
I’m getting calls from media outlets about some comments made by Rush Limbaugh, and whether they constitute defamation. I’m always happy to talk to you reporters and provide comments, but thought I’d put this post up to provide some background for your articles.
Apparently Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the controversy over religious organizations being forced to pay for birth control for their employees. Following an appearance by Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University student, at an informal House Democratic hearing last month. Ms. Fluke testified in favor of Mr. Obama’s mandate, which Georgetown and other Catholic institutions have roundly condemned as an infringement on their religious rights.
At the hearing, Ms. Fluke said fellow students at her Jesuit university pay as much as $1,000 a year for contraceptives that are not covered by student health plans.
On Wednesday, during his radio show, Limbaugh allegedly said:
“What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute . . . she wants to be paid to have sex … She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception.”
Accusing a woman of being unchaste is the classic, old-school form of slander. Here is the definition of slander under California’s Civil Code § 46:
Slander is a false and unprivileged publication, orally uttered, and also communications by radio or any mechanical or other means which:
1. Charges any person with crime, or with having been indicted, convicted, or punished for crime;
2. Imputes in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease;
3. Tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing to him general disqualification in those respects which the office or other occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to his office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits;
4. Imputes to him impotence or a want of chastity; or
5. Which, by natural consequence, causes actual damage.
I’ll bet you never knew it was slander to accuse a man of being impotent, but I digress. There it is in black and white – it is slander to impute to a woman a “want of chastity”. (For those of you who carefully read the section and see that it said “imputes to HIM . . . a want of chastity”, you get bonus points. However, there is a catchall statute that provides statements of gender in statutes don’t exclude the other gender, so you can’t accuse men or women of being loose.)
So is Rush Limbaugh toast?
Not at all, because defamation law makes clear that context is everything. Back in 2009 I wrote about the case of radio commentator Tom Martino who stated on his consumer show that the sellers of a boat were “lying”. The plaintiffs/sellers took umbrage with that remark, and sued Martino for defamation. Defendants responded with an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming the statement was merely an opinion and therefore could not constitute defamation. The trial court agreed with defendants and ruled that as a matter of law the comments did not constitute defamation. Under the anti-SLAPP statute, plaintiffs were ordered to pay all of defendants’ attorney fees.
A true opinion cannot constitute defamation unless it is offered as an assertion of fact. While it was true that the radio program host accused the plaintiffs of “lying” to their customer, that could not seriously be taken as an assertion of fact given the context of the show. As the court observed, “The Tom Martino Show is a radio talk show program that contains many of the elements that would reduce the audiences’ expectation of leaning an objective fact: drama, hyperbolic language, an opinionated and arrogant host and heated controversy. In the context of the show, Martino was simply listening to the complaint of a caller, and possessed no independent knowledge of the facts beyond what he was being told. It could not be taken, in that context, that he intended his “lying” comment to be taken as a verifiable fact.
So it is with Rush Limbaugh. He knows nothing about this woman who believes others should pay for her birth control, and he was engaging in a little hyperbole about what that makes her. He was creating a false syllogism to make a point, claiming that based on her testimony she wants to have sex, she can’t have sex without birth control, she wants someone else to pay for her birth control, so she is being paid to have sex.
As the old saying goes, you can sue for anything, but a defamation action by Ms. Fluke would not survive the first motion.
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
In this case, our (future) client addressed a city council meeting on a matter she felt was important to the city. Specifically, the city had been rocked by some controversy involving city council members, and our client was speaking to the issue of how the newly-elected council members should go about performing their duties. To illustrate the point, she cited the example of a former council member who had taken money from special interests. The city council member in question took umbrage with the accusation that she had acted unethically, and sued our client for defamation for the comments she had made at the city council meeting. We were retained to fight the defamation action.
It is seldom that we are presented with such a clear SLAPP suit. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. What better example of public participation is there than a citizen addressing their city council? Indeed, under Civil Code section 47, any comments made during a “legislative proceeding” are absolutely privileged (meaning they can never be defamatory). Better yet from the standpoint of an anti-SLAPP motion, section 425.16(e)(1) provides that statements made before a legislative proceeding are protected speech.
So let’s run the facts through the two prongs of the anti-SLAPP analysis. First, as counsel for the defendant, it was our burden to show that the speech was protected within the meaning of the anti-SLAPP statute. That was a no-brainer in this instance, since the words were spoken at a city council meeting. And since the conduct falls under a specific anti-SLAPP section of 425.16, there was no need to show that the topic was a matter of public interest. “Any matter pending before an official proceeding possesses some measure of ‘public significance’ owing solely to the public nature of the proceeding, and free discussion of such matters furthers effective exercise of the petition rights § 425.16 was intended to protect.” (Briggs v. Eden Council for Hope & Opportunity (1999) 19 Cal.4th 1106, 1118.)
Our having shown that the speech was protected, the second prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis requires plaintiff to show a reasonable likelihood of success on her claim, which in this case would be impossible. Since section 47 makes speech at a city council meeting absolutely privileged, the speech by definition cannot constitute defamation.
So a slam-dunk anti-SLAPP motion, right? Not quite.
A SLAPP motion puts a stay on all discovery, which is one of the primary benefits of an anti-SLAPP motion because it keeps the plaintiff from using the discovery process as a sledgehammer to try to wear down the defendant. In this case, counsel for Plaintiff had served discovery prior to the anti-SLAPP motion, and argued that the court should permit that discovery prior to ruling on the anti-SLAPP. There is authority for the proposition that a plaintiff should be permitted to conduct discovery to determine whether the defendant acted with malice, because that takes away certain privileges under section 47. However, there is no malice exception for words spoken at a city council meeting, so no amount of discovery by the Plaintiff could have revealed information that would have defeated the anti-SLAPP motion.
Nonetheless, the court granted Plaintiff’s request for discovery, and that added two months to the process. It could have been that the court just did not understand the authorities we provided, but more likely the court was bending over backwards to give the plaintiff access to discovery, specifically because the judge knew she was going to grant the motion, and did not want Plaintiff to have any possible basis for appeal. In that sense, the judge might have done us a favor, but it is frustrating to deal with a frivolous action for an additional two months. We were successful, though, in greatly limiting the discovery. The court denied Plaintiff’s request to take our client’s deposition.
As expected, the discovery revealed nothing useful to the Plaintiff. Instead, the Plaintiff attempted to argue that the conduct by Defendant was “illegal” and therefore not protected. This was another instance where there is authority for the proposition being claimed, but that legal theory had no application to the case at hand. In the case of Flatley v. Mauro, an attorney had sent threatening letters to someone, threatening to sue him if he did not pay a large settlement to a client. Normally, a letter from an attorney in anticipation of litigation would be protected speech under the litigation privilege, but the Flatley court ruled that the attorney’s letters had risen to the level of extortion, and were therefore illegal and unprotected.
Plaintiff was trying to say that our client’s speech at the city council meeting was illegal and therefore unprotected according to Flatley. And how could speech at a city council meeting ever be illegal, you ask? According to Plaintiff, it was illegal because the city council’s own guidelines state that comments should be civil, and in Plaintiff’s opinion Defendant’s comments had not been civil.
Predictably, the court understood that even if the words were interpreted to be rude, a city council’s guidelines do not amount to law, and violating them does not amount to criminal conduct. The court granted our anti-SLAPP motion, striking the defamation complaint and entering judgment in our favor. The court also awarded us over $18,000 in attorney fees against the Plaintiff.
[Update — October 14, 2011] The council member did not write us an $18,000 check. We had to garnish her wages, and she represented herself in court seeking to reduce the amount being deducted from her paychecks. To her credit, we were seeking $800 per check but she persuaded the court that given her financial circumstances it should be reduced. She was asking that nothing be taken, but the Court settled on $500 per check (every two weeks). I bring this up only for the lesson it offers. It is outrageous that a politician would try to use legal action to silence a critic based on something said at a city council meeting. The judgment is not so large that it will have any significant impact on her finances, but it is good to know that each of her next 40 or so paycheck stubs (adding costs and interest) will provide a reminder that a frivolous action has consequences.
I often get calls regarding wrongful termination where the terminated employee – terminated months earlier – has done nothing to find a new job, concluding that a new job would minimize his damages and hurt his case. That’s a crazy case of the tail wagging the dog.
Lately I am receiving defamation calls where the victim of the defamation is following a similar counterintuitive strategy. The call usually goes something like this:
Caller: “The Orange County Register published an article saying I cheat on my taxes and am a bad dancer.”
Me: “Is that a false statement?”
Caller: “Entirely false. I’m an excellent dancer!”
Me: “When did they publish this article?”
Caller: “About three months ago.”
Me: “Did you ever demand a correction?”
Caller: “No, I want to sue for damages, not a retraction. If they printed a correction, that might minimize my damages.”
That mentality is problematic on several levels. First, it shows that the caller is not as interested in preserving his reputation as he is in getting money. Second, if an attorney ever did take the case, the failure to ask for a correction would be a problem for the jury. He was so upset by the defamation (the tax part, not the dancing) that he is asking us to give him millions, but he never tried to minimize the loss of reputation by asking for a correction?
Finally, California Civil Code § 48a requires someone who has been libeled by a newspaper or slandered by a radio station to demand a correction “within 20 days after knowledge of the publication or broadcast or the statements claimed to be libelous.” If a plaintiff fails to make the demand in the allotted time, he or she is limited to special damages – the actual, quantifiable damages caused by the defamation, such as loss of business. Fail to make the demand within 20 days, and you give up all general damages, which are 95% of the damages in most defamation cases.
Litigation is a solution to a problem, but it should never drive your life. Don’t act in some artificial manner to “preserve” an action. By all means, save some screen shots as evidence for your action, but if you act to keep the defamatory comments in place, that will hurt your case far more than it helps.
We can answer all your questions about defamation, but sometimes if you have a general understanding of the law, you can ask better questions about the facts of your case. Some attorneys think a defamation action is like a personal injury case, but the proof necessary for a defamation action is very different. As a nation, we put such a value on free speech that the burden is high to prove defamation.
Defamation is the inclusive term, including both slander and libel. In other words libel and slander are both defamation, but libel is printed and slander is spoken. Defamation occurs when someone makes a false, unprivileged statement about someone to a third party, which attacks the person’s professional character or standing, claims that an unmarried person is unchaste, claims the person has a sexually transmitted disease, or that the person has committed a crime of moral turpitude. Stated another way, to constitute defamation the statement must falsely accuse the plaintiff of immoral, illegal or unethical conduct. Generally, the statement must harm the reputation of the person, but in the case of per se defamation, damages will be presumed. This last point is very important, because if a plaintiff had to prove actual damage, the burden of proof in most cases would be nearly impossible.
Let’s examine each element more closely:
1. False Statement of Fact
Truth is an absolute defense to a claim for defamation. No one can prevent you from telling the truth, even if that truth harms someone else. Further, the statement of an opinion generally will not constitute defamation, since it is not offered as a statement of fact. For example, it a food critic states that a restaurant serves horrible food, that is not defamation since taste will always be an opinion. Even if the restaurant brought 100 witnesses to court to attest that the food is wonderful, the critic is still entitled to his opinion.
On the other hand, some believe that they can escape liability by casting a fact as an opinion. A number of clients have come to us for a second opinion after another attorney has told them a statement is not defamatory because it was stated as an opinion. Adding the word “opinion” to a defamatory statement does not automatically shield the speaker from liability. The determining factor is whether the “opinion” is about a verifiable fact. For example, as stated above, a food critic is protected when he offers his opinion about the food, but if he says, “in my opinion the food was horrible and the restaurant has rats,” the statement about rats is defamation (assuming it is false) because it is a verifiable fact. Similarly, “In my opinion, he cheats on his taxes” is a defamatory statement since it is the assertion of a fact, even though it is called an opinion.
There are many statutes that afford a “privilege” to someone to speak, and in those cases the person is shielded from defamation. (See Civil Code section 47.)
For example, say you are looking out your window one day, and you see someone break a window in the house across the street, and climb into the house through that broken window. Thinking a burglary is occurring, you call the police who soon arrive and drag the suspect out of the house at gun point, only to discover that the person owns the house, and had been forced to break in when he locked himself out. You’ve just made a false statement to a third party, claiming that your neighbor was breaking the law. Can you be sued for defamation?
No, because there is a statutory privilege afforded to anyone making a good-faith report to the police. There is also a very strong litigation privilege, protecting witnesses from anything they say in court or in commencement or furtherance of the action. We often get calls from people wanting to sue a witness because “he lied on the stand” or submitted a false declaration. But the court system would come to a grinding halt if witnesses could be sued for what they say, so the law shields them with a privilege (although a witness who testifies falsely can be criminally prosecuted for perjury). Many clients have trouble with this concept, especially in the context of a custody suit, because the court will appoint an evaluator and of course the parent disagrees with everything contained in the report. They want to sue the evaluator for the “lies” contained in the report. Such actions are barred in almost every case because of the litigation privilege. The solution is not to sue, but rather to introduce your own evidence to show that the evaluator is wrong.
One privilege that really surprises people is the right your former employer has to tell prospective employers what a bad employee you were. An urban legend has appeared, stating that an employer is only allowed to confirm the employment of a former employee, without offering any opinion about job performance. Quite to the contrary, California Civil Code section 47 provides that an employer may offer such an opinion and is immune from suit unless it can be shown that false information was given out of malice.
3. Statement made to a third party
No statement, no matter how false and vile, can constitute defamation if it is made only to the person that is the basis of the statement. Defamation arises from a loss of reputation. How can you lose reputation if the statement is made only to you. And if you repeat the slander or show someone the libelous statement, the speaker or publisher remains free from liability, because you are the one that “published” the statement.
4. Immoral, illegal or unethical conduct
A statement is not defamatory just because it is false, even if it arguably casts the person in a bad light. Your application to join the local bowling league is rejected, and you later find out that one of the people on the board stated you were a really bad bowler. In fact, you are an outstanding bowler. Nonetheless, it is not defamation since being a bad bowler is neither immoral, unethical or illegal.
5. Harm to reputation
Finally, even if all the elements for defamation are met, the facts can sometimes present a difficult case to prove. For example, assume that while at a party, a stranger approaches your spouse and falsely tells him or her that you are having an affair. If your spouse laughs it off, then how has there been a loss of reputation? The statement is defamatory, because it falsely accuses you of immoral conduct, but how were you damaged? If, on the other hand, your spouse storms from the party, drives home and puts all your belongings in the front yard, then what was your reputation to begin with? If your spouse was willing to believe such a statement from a stranger with no further investigation or collaboration, then he or she did not hold you in very high regard in the first place. You apparently did not lose any reputation, because it was not there to start. This is just one example of the nuances that arise in a defamation action.
What can I do?
Most attorneys think in terms of suing, and will want to run to court. At Morris & Stone, we carefully examine your goals to determine the best plan for your specific situation. We are ready and able to go to court if that is the best approach, but sometimes other approaches better fit your goal. For example, in one case our client was defamed by a newspaper. He walked around with a cloud over his head, knowing that many people had read and believed the horrible, false accusations printed about him in the paper. Even if the paper printed a retraction, it would be a little paragraph buried on page 12 that no one would read. Similarly, money damages would do nothing to restore his good reputation.
The solution? We prepared and served a complaint to apply pressure, and then negotiated a settlement that was beyond anything our client could have hoped for. In addition to paying our client damages, the paper agreed to provide four pages for our client’s use. He was free to use one page at a time over several weeks, or use all four pages at once, to publish a retraction of the things that were said about him. In other words, he was given a blank canvas to use however he wanted to clear his good name.
That was the perfect remedy for that client, and we will work to find the prefect solution for you.
Your reputation is priceless
Whether you respond with just a letter or go to a full blown lawsuit, you should never allow a defamatory statement to go unchallenged. Silence is perceived as acceptance. If you did nothing about what was being said about you, it must be true. The goal in a defamation action can be to recover damages, but often that is not the primary goal. The priceless value of a defamation action is to gain back your reputation. When someone says to you, “but didn’t I hear or read somewhere that you [fill in the blank]?”, you can answer, “yes, someone was spreading that lie, but I sued him and he was found liable for defamation and had to pay me damages.”