Threats to Destroy Reputation May Constitute Blackmail

July 29, 2015,

Online review sites wield enormous power, and some enterprising consumers have begun leveraging that power to extract refunds or other benefits from businesses worried about protecting their online reputations. Suppose you're at an orthodontist's office being fitted for some $5000 braces when the orthodontist accidentally pierces the inside of your cheek. You decide that (a) the doctor is incompetent and (b) the world should be made aware of that fact for the good of mankind. Your first instinct is to go to Yelp or HealthGrades and write a scathing review warning the public about the dangers of dealing with this orthodontist. But then you realize you might be able to gain even greater satisfaction another way: you contact the doctor, tell him of your plans to write a negative online review, and offer to refrain from posting the review if he will waive the $5000 charge for the braces. You get free braces, and the doctor gets to preserve his 5-star Yelp rating. Win-win, right?

Consumers have a First Amendment right to express their opinions regarding products and services they have received, but things get a little tricky when people threaten to exercise that right as a means to extract money from someone. Some would call this blackmail, known in Virginia as extortion. Extortion is governed by Va. Code § 18.2-59, which provides in pertinent part, "Any person who (i) threatens injury to the character...of another person,...and thereby extorts money, property, or pecuniary benefit or any note, bond, or other evidence of debt from him or any other person, is guilty of a Class 5 felony."

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Must Context Be Apparent from the Face of the Complaint?

July 18, 2015,

Last month, the Supreme Court of Virginia held in Pendleton v. Newsome that where defamatory meaning is not apparent from the face of a statement claimed to be defamatory, a plaintiff may introduce evidence to show that the statement was made in a context that would reasonably cause the statement to be interpreted in a defamatory sense. Allegations that the circumstances surrounding the making and publication of the statement were such as would convey a defamatory meaning, together with an explanation of meaning allegedly conveyed, "will suffice to survive demurrer if the court, in the exercise of its gatekeeping function, deems the alleged meaning to be defamatory."

This language certainly seems to suggest that a court might properly dismiss a defamation claim if the full context of the statement is not pled in the complaint. In Potter v. Associated Press, however, the Eastern District of Virginia denied a motion to dismiss and allowed a defamation claim to go forward after expressly recognizing that the complaint omitted the full context of the statement and that the context was necessary to determine whether the statement could reasonably be interpreted to have defamatory meaning.

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The Virginia Model Jury Instructions for Defamation Lead to Bad Verdicts

June 27, 2015,

The idea of having your genitals and masculinity mocked by your doctor while laying unconscious on an operating room table is unappealing to say the least. But is it worth half a million dollars? As first reported by Washington Post reporter Tom Jackman, a Fairfax County man identified in court papers as "D.B." inadvertently recorded his entire colonoscopy, and was later shocked to discover he had been ridiculed and insulted shortly after drifting off to sleep. He won a $500,000 verdict in his lawsuit against the anesthesiologist, Tiffany Ingham, and her practice, including $100,000 for defamation (you know, that tort that's supposed to be about preventing and redressing attacks on one's reputation). In my view, no defamation damages should have been awarded in this case, but it's hard to imagine the case coming out any other way with the current limitations of the Virginia Model Jury Instructions.

Because D.B. recorded the procedure on his smartphone, the case presents a rare opportunity to listen to the actual words claimed to be defamatory as they were spoken. An excerpt of the recording is embedded below. One interesting question is whether the recording was properly admitted into evidence, as the recording would be considered illegal unless D.B. was a "party to the communication" (see Va. Code § 19.2-62(B)(2)), and D.B., though present and the subject of the discussion, was unconscious. But I digress. Listen to the recording and ask yourself: when Dr. Ingham remarks to her colleagues in the operating room that D.B. may have "tuberculosis in the penis" or syphilis, is she joking around, or asserting literally that D.B. actually had these conditions?

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The Elements of Defamation in Virginia

June 6, 2015,

To successfully maintain an action for libel or slander, a plaintiff's complaint must allege facts that support each element of the tort. Failure to plead the required elements will lead to an early dismissal, and failure to prove the required elements at trial will result in losing the case. Trying to figure out exactly what those elements are, however, has never been easy in Virginia. Supposedly, the test for a valid defamation claim includes only three elements: (1) publication of (2) an actionable statement with (3) the requisite intent. The problem with applying this seemingly simply test is that element (2) is so complicated that it should really be broken down into several elements of its own. I attempted to do that with this blog post I wrote back in 2013, and I encouraged the Virginia Supreme Court to adopt a more useful seven-element test for defamation the last time I appeared before it, but my suggestion has not caught on with the justices. On June 4, 2015, the court decided Schaecher v. Bouffault, the new definitive case outlining the elements of defamation in Virginia.

Although the court still enumerates only three elements, we now have additional guidance on what it means to allege and prove an "actionable statement." The two big takeaways from the case are (1) Virginia now follows Fourth Circuit precedent on the definition and scope of defamatory "sting", and (2) it can be defamatory to call someone a "liar," but whether such a statement will be actionable will depend on the circumstances surrounding the statement and the context in which it was made, as those considerations will govern whether the statement would be interpreted as a statement of fact (actionable) or opinion (not actionable). The gravity of the lie itself will also be relevant to the determination, as the lie must cause reputation to be adversely affected to a sufficient magnitude before it will be deemed defamatory.

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Just Because You Told The Truth Doesn't Mean You Didn't Slander Someone

June 5, 2015,

Criminal defense attorney Larry L. Archie received a good bit of publicity recently over his slogan, "Just Because You Did It Doesn't Mean You're Guilty," as shown below on a North Carolina billboard. Yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a ruling that stands for a similarly counterintuitive proposition: despite the widespread notion that "truth is a complete defense" to defamation claims, you can't always escape liability for slander even if everything you said was literally true. Even where the words, when read out of context, are literally true and defamatory meaning is not immediately apparent, Virginia law permits a plaintiff to maintain an action for defamation where innuendo would lead a reasonable reader to infer a defamatory meaning.

The case of Pendleton v. Newsome involves the heartbreaking story of a seven-year-old child with a severe peanut allergy who ingested a peanut at school and died. According to the allegations in the complaint, the child's mother, Laura Mary-Beth Pendleton (the plaintiff) had informed the school staff earlier in the school year about her daughter's severe allergy to peanuts, that she provided the school with specific instructions, signed by the child's pediatrician, about how to treat her daughter in the event of an emergency, and that she brought in an "EpiPen Jr." for the school to keep on hand to inject Epinephrine if needed. She alleges she was told by the school's clinic assistant that they already had all the equipment they needed and didn't need the EpiPen.

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Defamation Claim Against Maritime Lawyer Goes Forward

May 26, 2015,

The case of AdvanFort Co. v. International Registries, Inc. involves a defamation claim brought by AdvanFort and its owners against their former attorney, maritime lawyer John Cartner, and The Maritime Executive, a maritime industry journal. According to the complaint, shortly after AdvanFort complained about getting billed over $28,000 for less than two weeks' worth of legal services, Cartner wrote an article entitled "Self-Described AdvanFort 'Billionaire' May Not Be" in which he made numerous assertions allegedly calculated to lower AdvanFort in the estimation of the maritime community. Cartner responded that his article amounted to mere rhetorical hyperbole, which is not actionable, and that the article was not written with malice.

Defamation requires either a provably false factual assertion or a statement that can be reasonably interpreted as stating or implying actual facts about a person. Rhetorical hyperbole is protected under the First Amendment and cannot form the basis of a defamation claim. (See Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 17, 21). The Fourth Circuit has described rhetorical hyperbole as a statement that "might appear to make an assertion, but a reasonable reader or listener would not construe that assertion seriously." (See Schnare v. Ziessow, 104 Fed. App'x 847, 851 (4th Cir. 2004)).

In analyzing whether a particular statement will be actionable as defamation in Virginia, it's usually helpful to review recent cases to see how actual judges have ruled. It's often not entirely clear whether a statement is an assertion of fact, an expression of opinion, or rhetorical hyperbole. Here's how Judge O'Grady ruled with respect to the various statements at issue in this article:

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Can Government Employees Be Sued for Defamation?

May 14, 2015,

As a general rule, both the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia enjoy sovereign immunity, which shields the government entities and their agencies from defamation lawsuits as well as most other types of litigation. The law becomes trickier when applied to the employees of those governments. Federal employees are immune from defamation claims based on things they said while acting within the scope of their employment. Those who work for the Commonwealth of Virginia, on the other hand, or one of its counties, cities, or towns, don't have it so easy. Virginia employees do enjoy some degree of sovereign immunity for their actions, but--with limited exceptions--the protection they are afforded is less than the absolute protection federal employees receive. Like federal employees, state and local employees must be acting within the scope of their employment to be potentially entitled to claim immunity, but state employees need to meet additional criteria before they will be granted immunity.

The Virginia Supreme Court has described sovereign immunity as "a rule of social policy, which protects the state from burdensome interference with the performance of its governmental functions and preserves its control over state funds, property, and instrumentalities." This rule of social policy is essentially based on the following goals: (1) to protect the "public purse" (i.e., to preserve tax dollars), (2) to address the concern that officials might be unwilling to carry out their public duties if they lived in constant fear of being sued, (3) to encourage citizens to take public jobs, and (4) to permit the orderly administration of government by discouraging improper influence through vexatious litigation. (See Messina v. Burden, 228 Va. 301, 308 (1984)). Consideration of these policies is what guided the Virginia courts to develop a rule affording immunity to some state and local employees but not others.

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D.C. Anti-SLAPP Statute Does Not Apply in Federal Court

April 27, 2015,

On September 27, 2013, the District of Columbia District Court applied D.C.'s anti-SLAPP act, D.C. Code § 16-5501 et seq., to a defamation lawsuit brought by wealthy businessman Yasser Abbas against the Foreign Policy Group and journalist Jonathan Schanzer. For those interested in the facts of the case, my earlier coverage of the case is here. On April 24, 2015, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that pretrial dismissal of claims brought in federal diversity cases is governed by Rules 12 and 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and that because the anti-SLAPP act purports to address the same question, it does not apply in federal court. Nevertheless, the court affirmed the district court's dismissal of the case because the allegations were insufficient to state a claim for defamation under D.C. law.

The court summarized the workings of the anti-SLAPP statute as follows:

Under the Act as relevant here, a defendant may file a special motion to dismiss "any claim arising from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest." D.C. Code § 16-5502(a). To obtain dismissal, the defendant first must make a "prima facie showing that the claim at issue arises from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest." Id. § 16-5502(b). If the defendant makes that prima facie showing, then the plaintiff must demonstrate that "the claim is likely to succeed on the merits." Id. If the plaintiff makes that showing, the defendant's special motion to dismiss must be denied. Otherwise, the special motion to dismiss must be granted. See id. (As we will see, that likelihood of success requirement is important to this case.) While a special motion to dismiss is pending, discovery is stayed except for limited purposes. Id. § 16-5502(c). A defendant who prevails on a special motion to dismiss may recover the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorney's fees. Id. § 16-5504(a).

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Virginia's Anti-SLAPP Statute

April 13, 2015,

The First Amendment guarantees, among other freedoms, "the right of the people...to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." This right to petition is part of the First Amendment's free-speech protection, as it pertains to a particular form of freedom of expression. A lawsuit aimed at deterring or punishing citizens from exercising this First Amendment right, or from otherwise exercising their right to freely express their political views or engage in discourse on a matter of public concern, is known as a "SLAPP" suit. (SLAPP stands for "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation"). SLAPP suits usually don't advertise the fact that they seek to chill the expression of ideas; they are often disguised as legitimate lawsuits for defamation or some other tort.

A majority of states have passed anti-SLAPP laws designed to facilitate the identification and early dismissal of frivolous SLAPP suits. The laws differ from state to state, but generally allow a defendant to make a "special" motion to dismiss if he can show the claim arises from a statement made in connection with a public issue in furtherance of the right to free speech. Significantly, if the court grants one of these special motions to strike, the anti-SLAPP statutes generally allow the defendant to recover his attorneys' fees. Attorneys' fees are normally not recoverable in defamation actions, so this can be a powerful deterrent against meritless lawsuits.

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Make the Online Harassment Stop

March 16, 2015,

Libel and slander are considered "torts." The law of torts is designed to provide a remedy that will "make the plaintiff whole" to the fullest extent possible. Usually, we're talking about money: how much money would it take to fully compensate the plaintiff for the harm caused caused to the person's reputation by the defamation? What is the value of the reputation and what amount would fairly compensate the plaintiff for his or her emotional anguish? Often, however, plaintiffs are less interested in money than in halting or removing the damaging statements (especially if they were published online and continue to reach readers), or forcing the defendant to make a public retraction. This latter form of relief--asking the court to order someone to refrain from making certain statements or to perform an affirmative act--is considered "equitable" in nature, basically meaning that it will be guided by vague principles of fairness. A court order granting this relief is called an injunction. It's almost impossible to get.

One might think that if the purpose of tort law is to provide plaintiffs with a complete remedy for the harm, an injunction would be a logical choice because it has the capacity to prevent harm from happening in the first place. Moreover, many affected by online defamation take the position that no amount of money can truly restore a damaged reputation or bring an end to the emotional distress caused thereby. But that's not how the legal system works. Virginia law (like the law in most states) has a strong preference for money damages over injunctive relief. If the court finds that an award of money will fully compensate the plaintiff, it will not issue an injunction as a general rule. This means that unfortunately, there is often a huge disconnect between what victims of online defamation want and what the court is willing to give them.

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Statements Truthful When Made Won't Become Defamatory Later

February 2, 2015,

The Internet is full of factual assertions that were true at the time they were first published, but no longer are. Can future events modify the factual and legal landscape in such a way as to create defamation liability where there initially was none?

Earlier I wrote about the case of Lorraine Martin v. Hearst Corporation. Lorraine Martin brought a defamation action against several news outlets which had published accounts of her arrest for drug-related charges. It's not that she wasn't arrested; her complaint was that the charges were dropped in 2012 and that the publications refused to remove the original articles, which were still available online and causing harm to her reputation. The statements had become false over time, she argued, because Connecticut has an "erasure statute" which provides that after a certain amount of time after the dismissal of a criminal charge, the charge is deemed "erased" and the person's arrest record is wiped clean. The District of Connecticut rejected this argument, finding nothing in the statute to suggest that the legislature had intended to impose any requirements on anyone outside of courts or law enforcement. On January 28, 2015, the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her claims.

On August 26, 2010, the Connecticut Post, Stamford Advocate, and Greenwich Time, all published articles online stating that Martin had been arrested and charged with numerous drug violations after police received information handcuffs.jpgthat a pair of brothers was selling marijuana in town. News 12 Interactive, LLC, published an Internet article reporting that Martin was arrested "after police say they confiscated 12 grams of marijuana, scales and traces of cocaine from [her] house." Martin conceded that these statements were all true at the time they were originally published. (Note: even before reading the court's analysis, it should be apparent to most of you that when a plaintiff admits her defamation action is based on a true statement, there are going to be problems.)

The Second Circuit held that the erasure statute "creates legal fictions...it does not and cannot undo historical facts or convert once-true facts into falsehoods." The news accounts were truthful when made and remain truthful to this day: Ms. Martin was arrested. That a statute deems her not to have been arrested does not change history and make an accurate statement suddenly become defamatory. Rather, the effect of the statute is to prohibit courts from relying on a defendant's prior arrest record for such purposes as increasing a sentence for a later offense. In other words, the legislative intent was to treat as erased certain arrests in the context of the judicial and law enforcement systems, not to literally change history.

Martin realized there was a chance the court would find that the erasure statute was incapable of erasing historical truth, so she came with a backup theory: defamation by implication. Even if the articles were technically true, she argued, they only told part of the story and therefore gave readers an incomplete and inaccurate impression. The trouble with this argument, the court held, is that no reasonable reader could draw any untrue inference from the articles. While recognizing that a technically true statement can sometimes be so constructed as to carry a false and defamatory meaning by implication or innuendo, this was not such a case because the news reports at issue did not imply any fact about Martin that was not true.

The Statute of Limitations for Defamation Actions

January 19, 2015,

Under the current statute, suits in Virginia for libel, slander, or "insulting words" can only be brought within one year from the time of publication. Earlier this month, delegate Dave Albo filed House Bill No. 1635, proposing that the Commonwealth increase the limitations period to two years, and providing further that in cases involving Internet defamation by anonymous tortfeasors, the statute of limitations be suspended (or "tolled") upon a motion and showing of good cause. If the bill passes, it will make it a lot easier to identify and bring to justice those persons who use the Internet to conceal their identities while unleashing a barrage of false and harmful statements about another individual or business.

Statutes of limitation have been debated for hundreds of years. In a law review article written over 100 years ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. asked, "what is the justification for depriving a man of his rights, a pure evil as far as it goes, in consequence of the lapse of time?" In other words, why have statutes of limitation at all? Shouldn't every wrong have a remedy? There are some who feel that claims should be resolved on their merits regardless of when they are brought, whereas others argue that untimely claims should be forever extinguished. Most states have reached a consensus that defamation claims should be limited to one or two years, primarily due to concerns about First Amendment principles and a desire to avoid the chilling of free speech.

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Is it Slander to Call Someone a Liar?

December 13, 2014,

California lawyer Tamara Green has accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. Bill Cosby, speaking through his publicist, characterized the accusation as "discredited" and as amounting to "nothing." First question: is Cosby calling Green a liar? Second question: is it defamatory to call someone a liar if they're actually telling the truth? Third question: is a celebrity personally liable for defamatory statements made by that person's attorney or publicist? Ms. Green believes the answers to all three questions are YES, judging by the fact that she sued Mr. Cosby for defamation a few days ago in Massachusetts federal court. Personally, I'm not so sure.

Let's begin at the beginning: what did Cosby actually say? In defamation actions, it is important to know the exact words used, lest liability be based on embellishments or mischaracterizations of those words by the plaintiff's attorney. First of all, it wasn't Cosby himself who responded to Ms. Green's allegations. Her lawsuit is based on statements made by his attorney and publicist. Back in 2005, when Ms. Green first went public with her accusations in an appearance on the Today Show (video below), Mr. Cosby's lawyer at the time, Walter M. Phillips, Jr., allegedly issued a statement calling the accusations "absolutely false" and saying that the alleged assault "did not happen in any way, shape, or form."

Years later, in a Newsweek interview published in February 2014, Cosby's publicist (claimed to be David Brokaw) gave Newsweek this statement: "This is a 10-year-old, discredited accusation that proved to be nothing at the time, and is still nothing." As if to demonstrate the reason we have a requirement here in Virginia to plead the actual words used, Ms. Green does not include this quotation in her complaint. Instead, she characterizes the statement as follows: "in an effort to continue the public branding of Plaintiff as a liar, Defendant Cosby through Brokaw stated explicitly, stated in effect, stated by innuendo, implied, and/or insinuated, that Defendant Cosby's drugging and sexual assault against Plaintiff Green never occurred, and therefore that Plaintiff Green lied and was a liar."

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Paul Brodeur's Lawsuit Against Columbia Pictures

November 24, 2014,

So you may have heard that environmental scientist Paul Brodeur is seeking $1 million in damages for libel, defamation, slander and false light against the movie studios behind 2013's highly acclaimed film American Hustle. Why? Because according to him, the movie damaged his reputation by "attributing...a scientifically unsupportable statement" to him. Had this action been filed in Virginia rather than California, it would not likely go very far.

Here's the scene: it's the late 1970s or early 1980s, and the two characters played by Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence are arguing about the new microwave oven that just exploded in their kitchen:

Irving Rosenfeld: I told you not to put metal in the science oven! What did you do that for?

Rosalyn Rosenfeld: Don't make such a big deal! Just get another one.

Irving Rosenfeld: I don't want another one, want the one that Carmine gave me.

Rosalyn Rosenfeld: [mocking] Oh, Carmine! I want the one that Carmine gave me! Carmine! Carmine! [serious] Why don't you just marry Carmine? Get a little gold microwave and put it on a chain around your neck! You wanna be more like Carmine? Why don't you build something, like he does? Instead of all your empty deals; they're just like your fuckin' science oven. You know, I read that it takes all of the nutrition out of our food! It's empty, just like your deals. Empty! Empty!

Irving Rosenfeld: Listen to this bullshit.

Rosalyn Rosenfeld: It's not bullshit! I read it in an article. Look: By Paul Brodeur.

[hands Irving the article]

Rosalyn Rosenfeld: Bring something into this house that's gonna take all the nutrition out of our food and then light our house on fire? Thank God for me.


Funny, isn't it? And therein lies the defense.

Paul Brodeur is an investigative science writer who actually did author a piece entitled The Zapping of America in which he wrote of the dangerous of microwave radiation. In a 1978 interview with People Magazine, he explained, "For 25 years the military-electronics industry complex has suppressed, ignored or failed to pursue evidence that people were being injured by microwave radiation." When asked during that same interview about whether there was "any danger" in eating food cooked by microwaves, he replied "none that is known." His lawsuit claims he never, ever said that microwaves drain the nutrition from food.

But does the movie actually attribute those words to him in a manner intended to convey to the viewing audience that Mr. Brodeur is an incompetent scientist? First of all--and this is important--the movie begins by displaying the message, "Some of this actually happened." That's a far more honest introduction than the more common "based on a true story," and tells the viewers right off that bat that most of what they are about to see is pure fiction. Sure, Paul Brodeur is a real person and the movie refers to him by his real name, but he will have a difficult time convincing a judge or jury that an inaccurate reference to his scientific findings was among the "stuff" that "actually happened," particularly when his supposed article was being used to comedic effect in an argument over a mysterious "science oven."

Language will not carry defamatory meaning when used in a context that shows it is not intended to be interpreted literally. See Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 16-17 (1990) (explaining constitutional prohibition against imposing defamation liability in cases where circumstances of speech indicate defendant's statement not intended literally). This is as true in California as it is in Virginia. Therefore, if the court finds that the hypothetical reasonable viewer would not conclude from this particular bit of dialogue that Paul Brodeur actually wrote an article claiming that microwaves suck the nutrition out of food, the claim will likely fail for lack of defamatory meaning and/or lack of actual harm to reputation.

No Intra-Corporate Immunity Against Defamation Claims

November 7, 2014,

Workplace defamation actions face a number of obstacles. The one that probably comes up the most is the issue of qualified privilege. Employees often claim that a manager or supervisor defamed them in the course of a termination or negative performance evaluation. These statements are usually protected from defamation claims, as a limited privilege applies to communications made on any subject matter in which the person communicating has an interest, or with reference to which he has a duty, if made to another person having a corresponding interest or duty. In other words, in situations where it is necessary or expected that one employee will make statements concerning the performance of another (such as a performance evaluation), a qualified privilege will apply.

Another defense that is sometimes raised in the employment context is that of "intra-corporate immunity." This is a defense borrowed from the law of conspiracy. Because a conspiracy, by definition, requires at least two legally distinct persons, and because two employees acting within the scope of their employment duties are both acting as agents of their employer, a conspiracy cannot be formed between those two employees due to the unity of interest and absence of a second entity. "A corporation cannot conspire with itself," is the oft-used way of describing the reasoning behind the doctrine.

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