The United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia has found that negative comments a customer service representative made to a customer may form the basis of a defamation action.
Charles and Donna Bates operate a school photography business. They entered a contract with Strawbridge Studios, Inc., also a school photography business, under which Strawbridge purchased the Bates' accounts and employed them to handle certain accounts. The relationship deteriorated and ended in the Bates filing a breach of contract action again Strawbridge. The parties resolved their dispute and entered a settlement agreement which included a non-disparagement clause providing that neither party would "say, write, publish, broadcast, or in any other way participate in negative or disparaging comments about the other."
Later, when a customer called Strawbridge looking for a photograph she believed the Bates had taken, Strawbridge's customer service representative told the customer that the Bates were "not reputable" and "could not be trusted." The representative also stated that "things got so bad" that Strawbridge "had to get involved in a lawsuit." The Bates filed a second suit against Strawbridge and included a claim for defamation.
Strawbridge moved for summary judgment on the defamation claim, arguing that (1) the Bates failed to prove that the customer service representative made the alleged statements, (2) the Bates failed to produce evidence that the statements were false, (3) the statements were expressions of opinion, and (4) a qualified privilege protects the statements.
The court rejected all of Strawbridge's arguments, first finding that the Bates' customer declaration describing the customer services representative's negative comments was sufficient evidence to establish that the allegedly defamatory statements were made. The court then noted that the issue of whether a plaintiff has sufficiently proven the falsity of allegedly defamatory statements is a question to be decided by a jury. Strawbridge submitted third party declarations stating that the Bates were not trustworthy and did not have a good reputation, and the Bates proffered declarations from individuals that cast them in a positive light. Given this evidence, the court found that reasonable minds could differ on the issue of truth or falsity and therefore the issue must go to the jury.
Whether an allegedly defamatory statement is fact or opinion, however, is a question of law to be determined by the court. The court noted that in making such a judgment, it must consider the statement as a whole. The court found that the statements could be reasonably understood to imply the existence of defamatory facts given the context in which they were made and the fact that the customer service representative referred to the lawsuit between the parties. Therefore, the court was unable to conclude as a matter of law that the statements at issue were pure expressions of opinion.
Finally, the court rejected Strawbridge's qualified privilege argument. A communication made in good faith on a subject matter in which the person communicating has an interest or owes a duty is qualifiedly privileged if made to a person having a corresponding interest or duty. For the privilege to apply, Strawbridge must show that its representative and the customer had corresponding duties or interests in the subject matter. Here, Strawbridge failed to show that the customer had any interest in learning about Strawbridge's failed business relationship with the Bates. In fact, the customer stated in her declaration that she "had no interest in hearing these backbiting comments."