Articles Posted in Defamation by Implication

Redouane Goulmamine, M.D., is physician based in Petersburg, Virginia, who conducts business under the name “The Petersburg Spine Center.” According to a complaint he filed in the Richmond Division of the Eastern District of Virginia federal court, he became aware that several employees of CVS Pharmacy were providing false information about him to patients and refusing to fill prescriptions he had written. CVS eventually made it official, sending him a letter notifying him that the pharmacy would no longer fill his prescriptions and implying its decision was based on its belief that Dr. Goulmamine had been writing pain-pill prescriptions for drug addicts.

Dr. Goulmamine sued CVS for defamation, insulting words, and tortious interference with contract/business expectancy. The complaint recites nearly two-dozen conversations with CVS employees alleged to be defamatory. Some of the statements were clearly statements of opinion (e.g., “he is filling too many prescriptions”), but the court noted that several alleged statements amounted to statements of fact that were claimed to be false. These statements primarily fell into two camps: (1) false factual statements about Dr. Goulmamine himself (e.g., that he was in jail; that he had overprescribed to a pregnant patient; that one of his patients had died from a Xanax overdose; and that someone in his office was producing fraudulent prescriptions); and (2) false or misleading factual statements about Dr. Goulmamine’s standing in relationship to regulatory bodies (e.g., that the DEA, FBI, or Board of Medicine was investigating him or had revoked his license, or that he was being “audited.”)
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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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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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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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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.

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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Extortion is a crime. Statements that falsely accuse another of committing a crime often constitute defamation per se in Virginia, particularly where the crime is one involving “moral turpitude.” Does it follow, then, that false accusations of extortion will automatically qualify as defamation per se? The answer, which will undoubtedly surprise many of you, is no. The reason lies in the importance of context in defamation actions.

A good illustration comes from the Tenth Circuit, which issued its decision in Hogan v. Winder a few days ago. Chris Hogan worked as a consultant for the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (“UTOPIA”), a state agency charged with upgrading high-speed Internet access. In the spring of 2011, Hogan began to suspect that UTOPIA’s executive director unfairly favored a bid for a contract from the company where the director’s brother worked, and he expressed his suspicions to UTOPIA’s plant manager. He was terminated shortly thereafter. Believing that his termination was retaliatory, he hired a lawyer and sent UTOPIA a draft complaint along with certain settlement demands, pointing out that the public scrutiny that would result from filing the lawsuit would essentially destroy the company. In a response, UTOPIA’s attorney characterized Hogan’s demands as “extortion” and “blackmail.”
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Defamation claims arise frequently in employment settings. Employees often disagree with their performance reviews and, if they feel particularly aggrieved, resort to the courts to extract a modicum of revenge. Unfortunately for them, statements relating to employee discipline and termination made by managers and supervisors usually enjoy a qualified privilege against defamation claims. The privilege generally insulates such statements from liability absent clear and convincing evidence of malice or some other indicator that the privilege has been abused. When an employer makes a false and defamatory statement about an employee, but that statement is protected by a qualified privilege that has not been lost or abused, the statement is not actionable.

Of course, before the question of privilege even comes into play, there is the matter of whether the statement at issue is defamatory in the first place. In Regina M. Zarrelli v. City of Norfolk, Ms. Zarrelli sued the City of Norfolk, Virginia (her former employer) along with the City’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, Gregory D. Underwood, based in part on being required to apologize to a vendor. It didn’t work, and the case was dismissed both because the statements were not defamatory, and because even if they were, they were protected by qualified privilege.
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The Supreme Court of Virginia issued an opinion today in which it addressed the concept of defamation by implication. Building on its 1954 decision in Carwile v. Richmond Newspapers, the court reiterated that although defamatory meaning can sometimes be implied with literally true statements, the inferred meaning cannot be extended beyond the ordinary and common acceptation of the words used. Innuendo cannot be used to introduce new matter or extend the meaning of the words used by the speaker. In short, “the alleged implication must be reasonably drawn from the words actually used.”

In Webb v. Virginian-Pilot Media Companies, LLC, Phillip D. Webb, an assistant principal at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, sued Virginian-Pilot and reporter Louis Hansen for its handling of a story about the school’s disciplinary process. Webb’s son, a student of a neighboring school where Webb previously coached pole vaulting, had been charged with a felony for assaulting another student’s father but received no punishment from the school. Webb’s lawsuit acknowledged that the reporting of the story was truthful, but claimed that the story implied that Webb abused his position of authority to obtain preferential treatment for his son. Webb argued that when the reporter wrote that the student “did not get preferential treatment because of his dad’s position,” the implied meaning was “exactly the opposite.” The court did not agree.

While acknowledging that the article insinuated that Webb’s son may have benefited from special treatment, the court held that there was nothing in the article to suggest that Webb solicited or otherwise procured such treatment. Therefore, the article was not reasonably capable of the defamatory meaning Webb ascribed to it and Jury.jpgthe jury should never have been permitted to even consider the claim.

Trial courts perform an essential threshold, gatekeeping function when it comes to defamation claims. Their job is to determine, as a matter of law, whether a statement alleged to be defamatory is reasonably capable of the defamatory meaning the plaintiff ascribes to the statement. This function, the court held, is to ensure that “defamation suits proceed only upon statements which actually may defame a plaintiff, rather than those which merely may inflame a jury to an award of damages.” If the inference urged by the plaintiff cannot be reasonably drawn from the actual words used, the trial court should sustain any demurrer filed and dismiss the case. In this particular case, the trial court failed to do that, which decision the Virginia Supreme Court held to be in error.

The District of Columbia’s anti-SLAPP act applies to actions that arise from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest. It provides that if a party makes a prima facie showing that the case involves the type of claim to which the act applies, the court will dismiss the case–with prejudice–unless the responding party can demonstrate that the claim is likely to succeed on the merits. D.C. Code ยง 16-5502(a)-(b). Although there has been some uncertainty as to whether D.C.’s anti-SLAPP act applies in federal court, the emerging trend has been to find that it does. On September 27, 2013, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the District of Columbia District Court found the statute applicable to a defamation lawsuit brought by Yasser Abbas and granted the defendant’s special motion to dismiss made under its terms.

Yasser Abbas is a wealthy businessman and political emissary for his father’s regime, the Palestinian Authority (“PA”). He sued Foreign Policy Group, LLC, and journalist Jonathan Schanzer for certain statements Schanzer made in an article he had written about the sons of the Palestinian president. The article was published in the “Argument” section of Foreign Policy Magazine and questioned whether the sons of the Palestinian president were “growing rich off their father’s system” and whether they had “enriched themselves at the expense of regular Palestinians” and U.S. taxpayers.

When the defendants responded with a motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP act, the first question was whether D.C.’s statute even applied in federal court, a question not yet decided by D.C.’s highest court. The issue boils down to whether the anti-SLAPP statute should be viewed as substantive or procedural, as federal courts sitting in diversity apply federal procedural laws but state substantive laws. Judge Sullivan looked to other circuits and found that many interpret similar state statutes as substantive and do apply them in federal diversity cases. Notably, the D.C. Circuit has upheld a district court decision denying a special motion to dismiss under the anti-SLAPP statute because it was not timely filed. Although that decision did not specifically hold that the anti-SLAPP statute was substantive, it implied as much. With this background, Judge Sullivan was persuaded that the anti-SLAPP law applies in federal court.

To succeed on their special motion, the defendants were required to show that Mr. Abbas’ claim arose from “an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest.” The court found that Mr. Abbas was a limited purpose public figure because he had voluntarily thrust himself into a role of prominence in Palestinian DCdistrictcourt.jpgpolitics and in the controversy surrounding his wealth. Further, the question of U.S. aid to the PA and the manner in which the PA used such aid are questions that have been debated at length for years. The court held that the “level of corruption in the PA,” whether Mr. Abbas has enriched himself by virtue of his political ties, and whether his wealth can be traced to U.S. tax dollars are issues of public (not private) interest. Accordingly, the court held that the defendants had made a prima facie showing that the defamation claim arose from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of the public interest. The burden then shifted to Mr. Abbas to show that he was likely to succeed on the merits.

Mr. Abbas contended that the questions invited his colleagues and the world to wonder if he has enriched himself at the expense of others. He argued that, while posed as questions, the statements could be read as assertions of fact, falsely accusing him of using wrongful and possibly criminal means to accumulate wealth. The defendants responded that the article merely raised unanswered questions, and that even if they could be interpreted as assertions, the statements were pure opinion and therefore non-actionable.

The court agreed with the defendants, finding that the questions posed in the article could not reasonably be interpreted as statements of fact. The court found that the questions merely invite the reader to form an independent opinion as to the relationship between the Abbas family and its wealth, which invitation is “the paradigm of a properly functioning press.”

Even if the questions were capable of defamatory meaning, the court held that they were statements of opinion protected by the First Amendment. The factual basis for the article’s questions was outlined with statements and hyperlinked source material. This put the reader on notice that the piece was one of opinion. Also, the article appeared in the Argument section of the Foreign Policy Group website–a place where readers expect to find opinion pieces.

The court held that Mr. Abbas failed to meet his burden of proving that he was likely to prevail on the merits. Accordingly, the court granted the defendants’ special motion to dismiss.

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