Articles Posted in Opinion

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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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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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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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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To be actionable as libel, a statement must reasonably imply false and defamatory facts when read in context. Context is important because the setting of the speech makes its nature apparent and helps determine how its intended audience would have interpreted the statement. In some cases, a literally false statement will not be actionable because contextual factors demonstrate that the true meaning of the statement is something other than what the words alone might suggest. In other words, the statement that a plaintiff must prove false to prevail in a defamation case is not necessarily the literal phrase published but rather what a reasonable reader would have understood the author to have said. In Farah v. Esquire Magazine, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit discussed the importance of these principles in a case involving political satire.

Jerome Corsi is the popular author of several New York Times bestsellers and the book “Where’s the Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is Not Eligible to be President” published by WND Books. Joseph Farah is the Editor and CEO of WND’s parent company,, a competitor of Esquire Magazine. On the day after “Where’s the Birth Certificate” was released, Esquire published an online article on “The Politics Blog” entitled “BREAKING: Jerome Corsi’s Birther Book Pulled from Shelves!” A copy of the Drudge Siren, a symbol of sensationalistic news, appeared above an image of the book’s cover. The article claimed that Farah had announced plans to recall and “pulp” the entire first run of the book and to refund purchaser’s money because three weeks earlier, Obama had produced his long form birth certificate indicating he was born in Hawaii. Later, Esquire published an update clarifying that the article was satirical, but the writer of the article referred to Corsi as an “execrable piece of shit” in an interview published on another online publication, The Daily Caller.

Farah and Corsi sued for defamation and other torts. According to the complaint, after the article was published, Farah received numerous requests for confirmation of the story and comment, and consumers began requesting refunds. The plaintiffs also claimed that they were attacked by book supporters and that book stores pulled the book from their shelves or refused to sell it. Farah and Corsi contended that Esquire only published the update after Farah indicated that he was exploring legal options and that the update was likewise false and defamatory. The district court granted Esquire’s motions to dismiss under both Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and D.C.’s Anti-SLAPP Act, D.C. Code § 16-5501 et seq.

On a de novo review, the Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s dismissal of the complaint for failure to state a claim, declining to address the Anti-SLAPP issue. The court held that the article was protected political satire and that the update and writer’s comments were non-actionable statements of opinion. The court noted that the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly extended First Amendment protection to statements that do not reasonably state or imply defamatory falsehoods when read in context. Satire is a broad and complex genre that is sometimes funny and other times cruel and mocking or even absurd. The court gave the example of Jonathan Swift’s famous jonathanswift.jpgsatire “A Modest Proposal” in which he suggested killing and eating Irish children to solve the problem of Irish poverty. Although satirical speech is literally false, it enjoys First Amendment protection.

To qualify as defamatory, a plaintiff must prove not that the literal published phrase is false but that what a reasonable reader would have understood the author to have said is untrue. Satire is not actionable if it cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts. Farah and Corsi did not disagree that satire is protected, but they asserted that this attempt at satire was actionable because reasonable readers would take the fictitious blog post literally.

The court held that to determine how a reasonable reader would have understood a particular satirical statement, courts should assess the hypothetical reader’s “well-considered view,” formed after time for reflection, rather than her “immediate yet transitory reaction.” Thus, even if some actual readers don’t “get” the satire and mistake it for actual news, satire that, taken in context, would be understood (upon reflection) as satire by a reasonable reader, enjoys First Amendment protection and will not support a defamation action.

The court also noted that an article’s “indicia of satire” can be subtle. In this case, for example, the body of the article “did not employ the sort of imitation and exaggerated mimicry that are typical of parody.” The court explained that satire can incorporate a wide variety of literary forms and devices to achieve its intended effect, such as “ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, parody, or caricature.” The fact that an article’s satirical nature may not be immediately obvious does not remove it from First Amendment protection.

Considering this particular article in context, the court held that a reasonable reader could not understand it to convey real news about the plaintiffs. The intended audience consisted of readers of “The Politics Blog” who would have been familiar with Esquire’s history of publishing satire. They were also politically informed readers who would have been familiar with WorldNetDaily and its positions on the birther controversy.

Reasonable readers would have recognized the signs of satire in the article such as the substance of the story itself, i.e., that Farah, a leader of the movement to challenge Obama’s eligibility to serve, had suddenly and without warning decided to recall and “pulp” Corsi’s book. The humorous and outlandish elements in the article also suggest satire. For example, the article claims Corsi wrote a book entitled “Capricorn One: NASA, JFK, and the Great ‘Moon Landing’ Cover-Up.” Additionally, the article contained quotes using foul language which would not likely appear in a serious news story. Stylistic details such as the exclamatory headline and the use of the Drudge Siren symbol similarly alerted readers that the article was not to be taken seriously.

The court held that because a reasonable reader could not understand the blog post to convey actual facts about the plaintiffs, it was not actionable as defamation. Rather, almost everything about the article indicated that it was political speech aimed at criticizing the plaintiffs’ public position on Obama’s eligibility to hold office. The article was protected by the First Amendment and the district court properly dismissed the defamation claim.

To survive demurrer, claims for defamation must set forth the exact language of the alleged statements claimed to be defamatory. Some Virginia judges (like Judge Charles E. Poston of Norfolk) refer to this requirement as a “heightened pleading” standard, but care should be taken not to confuse this terminology with the heightened pleading standard for fraud claims, which generally requires that fraud allegations identify the time, place, content, and maker of each alleged fraudulent statement. No such particularity is required for defamation claims in Virginia.

Judge Poston recently sustained a demurrer to a defamation claim that failed to allege the specific words spoken. In Owens v. DRS Automotive Fantomworks, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Owens tasked DRS and Daniel Short with converting their 1960 Thunderbird into a 1960 Thunderbird Police Interceptor. The Owens paid DRS two deposits of $15,000 each which DRS used for restorations, repair work and part expenditures including the purchase of a Police Interceptor from Alexander Thiess. When the defendants refused to give the Owens documentation of the expenditures, the Owens asked DRS to return the vehicle. DRS demanded that the Owens pay an additional $3,313. The Owens refused and sued DRS. DRS filed a counterclaim alleging that the Owens defamed it in statements made to Mr. Theiss and his superiors. The Owens demurred to the defamation counterclaim, arguing that it failed to allege sufficient facts.

The allegedly defamatory statements were that the Owens described Mr. Short’s business practices as illegal, criminal, shady and not on the up-and-up; asserted that Mr. Short and DRS were under criminal and civil investigation and that they likely stole the Police Interceptor; claimed Mr. Short was a “liar” regarding the history of Tbird.jpgthe Police Interceptor, and that he deceived and overcharged the Owens for the Interceptor. The counterclaim, however, contained only two verbatim quotes: that the Owens called Mr. Short a “liar” and that DRS sold vehicles with “open-titles.” The court found the vague allegations insufficient.

The court held that the counterclaim failed to meet the “heightened pleading” requirement for a defamation claim because (with two limited exceptions) DRS did not allege the exact words or phrases used. Words of an equivalent or similar nature, summaries and generalizations are not adequate. The heightened pleading requirement, the court held, is to ensure that parties do not frame statements to favor their claims, resulting in bias to the other party. Additionally, the two single-word quotations are not enough. The quotes lacked context and were so vague as to be meaningless.

The court also found that even if the alleged statements could be considered sufficiently specific, they constituted non-actionable opinion. A factual statement can be objectively characterized as true or false whereas an opinion is relative in nature and is dependent on the speaker’s viewpoint. Here, words such as “shady” and “overcharged” depend on the Owens’ viewpoint and, if those words were used at all, would be statements of opinion. The court found that the allegation that Mr. Short and DRS were “under criminal and civil investigation” is a generalization that would require the speaker to define those terms in order to state an actual fact. The noncommittal statement that the car was likely stolen was clearly meant as an opinion, and calling Mr. Short a “liar,” without alleging any context, was too vague to be considered an assertion of fact. Therefore, the court sustained the demurrer.

Well-known climate scientist Michael Mann made good on his threat to sue the National Review and columnist Mark Steyn for defamation based on statements made online questioning Mann’s global warming research. In response, the defendants filed a special motion to dismiss under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP statute, arguing that the online statements were made in furtherance of the right of advocacy on an issue of public interest. The court found that the anti-SLAPP statute did apply but nevertheless denied the motion.

Mann is a professor of meteorology and the Director of the Early System Science Center at Penn State. He is well known for his research on global warming and has published papers and books on the subject. The University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) exchanged emails with Mann which were later misappropriated. In one email, a CRU scientist referred to Mann’s “nature trick” of adding in real temperatures for the last twenty years and from 1961 to “hide the decline.” Upon discovery of the emails, the University of East Anglia investigated the matter and concluded that the honesty and rigor of the CRU scientists was not in doubt but that the email referencing Mann’s “nature trick” was misleading.

In 2010, Penn State initiated an investigation of Mann and the CRU emails. The investigatory committee was comprised entirely of Penn State faculty members. Based on an interview with Mann, the committee cleared Mann of three of four charges against him. The last charge involved an allegation that Mann’s research might deviate Mann.jpgfrom accepted norms. The committee interviewed an MIT professor who was critical of Mann’s work and later expressed dismay with the scope of the investigation and the committee’s analysis of the CRU emails.

At the same time, in response to pressure from the National Review, Steyn and others, the EPA investigated Mann and found no evidence of scientific misconduct. The National Science Foundation also investigated Mann’s work and found that Penn State had not adequately reviewed the allegations and failed to interview critics of Mann’s work

Two years later, Penn State was in headlines due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal. FBI Director Louis Freeh concluded that the university had failed to properly investigate allegations of misconduct when they arose and suggested that it should undertake a thorough and honest review of its culture which seemed to value the avoidance of bad publicity and its consequences above all else.

The National Review seized on the Sandusky scandal and published Steyn’s article “Football and Hockey” on its website in a section called “The Corner.” The piece contained an excerpt from and a link to a post by Rand Simberg on entitled “The Other Scandal in Unhappy Valley” which compared the Sandusky scandal and the university’s failure to handle the matter properly with its investigation into Mann’s work. Steyn agreed that Simberg had a point but admitted he might not have “extended the metaphor all the way into the locker-room showers” with quite the zeal Simberg did. Steyn also stated that Mann was the man behind the “fraudulent climate-change hockey stick graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus,” and he concluded by noting the similarities between Penn State’s investigation of Sandusky and Mann and questioning its handling of both matters.

Mann demanded a retraction and apology for the accusations of academic fraud. In response, the National Review asserted that the term “fraudulent” was used to mean “intellectually bogus and wrong” rather than criminally fraudulent.

Mann sued in D.C. Superior Court, alleging libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the National Review, Steyn, Simberg and the owner of, Competitive Enterprise Institute. His complaint was based on the statements that (1) Mann had engaged in data manipulation and scientific misconduct and was the “poster-boy of the corrupt and disgraced climate science echo chamber,” (2) Mann was the man behind the “fraudulent climate-change hockey stick graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus,” and (3) Mann’s work was intellectually bogus.

The National Review and Steyn moved to dismiss under both D.C.’s Anti-SLAPP Act and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The defendants argued that their comments are protected by the First Amendment and that the Anti-SLAPP Act applies because Mann’s claims stem from statements made in a public forum that discusses issues of public interest, i.e., climate change and global warming. Mann asserted that the Anti-SLAPP Act was enacted to deter large private interests from bringing meritless suits to deter common citizens from exercising their political or legal rights and was not intended to apply to cases such as this. The court found that because the defendants’ comments were made with respect to climate issues which are environmental issues and issues of public interest, and were made in publications that were available to the public, the Anti-SLAPP Act applies.

The Anti-SLAPP Act provides that if a party filing a special motion to dismiss makes 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, then the court will grant the motion unless the responding party shows that the claim is “likely to succeed on the merits.” The parties disagreed on the level of proof this standard requires. The defendants asserted that “likely” poses a higher burden than “probability,” which is the term used in the corresponding California statue upon which the D.C. statute is based. Mann argued that there is no difference between “likely” and probability.” The court turned to Black’s Law Dictionary which defines the “likelihood of success on the merits test” in the context of a preliminary injunction as requiring the litigant to show “a reasonable probability of success in the litigation.” The California statute requires the plaintiff to show a “probability of prevailing on the claim by making a prima facie showing of facts that would, if proved, support a judgment in the plaintiff’s favor.” The court held that the standard is similar to that used on a motion for judgment as a matter of law and that Mann must present a sufficient legal basis for his claims in order to survive the anti-SLAPP motion.

The defendants argued that Mann would be unable to make a prima facie case for libel because he could not prove the actual malice required where plaintiff is a public figure. They also argued that Mann would be unable to prove the falsity of the statements because the statements were ones of opinion. Mann countered that he could demonstrate actual malice by showing that the defendants entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statements or acted with a high degree of awareness that the statements were probably false. He argued that the statements were false and defamatory per se and that the defendants made them with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of the truth. He contended that whether he engaged in fraud is verifiable by analyzing the elements of fraud or considering the investigations conducted regarding his research.

On the issue of malice, the court found that sufficient evidence existed to show at least reckless disregard of truth or falsity, as Mann had been investigated several times, at least once due to the defendants’ accusations, and his research has been found to be accurate. The court held that where the defendants consistently claim that Mann’s work is inaccurate despite being proven accurate, then there is a strong probability that the defendants disregarded the falsity of their statements and did so with reckless disregard. Although the evidence was not yet sufficient to show clear and convincing evidence of actual malice, the court found sufficient evidence to necessitate further discovery on the matter.

Regarding the fact vs. opinion question, the court noted that opinions may be actionable if they imply a provably false fact or rely upon stated facts that are provably false. To determine whether a statement is actionable opinion, a court must examine the context of the statement. The court found that the statements at issue here questioned facts rather than simply inviting readers to ask questions. The court held that, given the definition of fraud and the common readers’ interpretation of the words “fraud” and “fraudulent,” the statements were more than brutally honest commentary. The court held that the assertions of fraud rely upon facts that are provably false in light of the fact that Mann has been investigated and his research and conclusions determined to be sound. Evidence indicated that the defendants’ statements were not pure opinion but rather were statements based on provably false facts.

The defendants also argued that the statements were rhetorical hyperbole – witty and obvious exaggeration– which is protected under the First Amendment, and that the statements criticized Mann’s work and ideas rather than Mann himself and thus cannot be defamatory. The court found that, when considered in the context of all of the comments and accusations made over the years and the “constant” requests for investigations of Mann’s work, the statements appear more as factual assertions.

Finally, the defendants argued that their statements were protected by D.C.’s fair comment privilege, which protects opinions based on facts that are well known to readers. To take advantage of this privilege, a defendant must show that the publication was fair and accurate and that the publication properly attributed the statement to the official source. Here, the court found that the accusations of fraud were provably false as several reputable bodies had found his work sound. Thus, the court held that the fair comment privilege did not apply.

For these reasons, the court denied the motions to dismiss and lifted the discovery stay.

Travel agent John Mathews may have a meritorious claim against a Virginia hotel for breaching a contract to provide food for a large group of tourists. It’s hard to tell, though, when he clutters his complaint with counts for defamation, invasion of privacy, tortious interference, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fails to include a count for breach of contract. This latest complaint represents Mr. Mathews’ fourth attempt to present his case to a federal court in Pennsylvania. Had he opted to file a simple breach-of-contract action in Virginia’s general district court instead, he might have secured a judgment by now.

The allegations go as follows. Mr. Mathews booked a “Winter Get Away Tour” with the Westin hotel at Washington Dulles in 2012. He alleges he planned the event with the hotel sales manager and estimated there would be 150 guests with the tour. He claims he emphasized that this was only an estimate and he would furnish a final number later.

When 174 people signed up for the getaway (or rather, the “get away”), the hotel was not able to feed everyone, as the head chef apparently wasn’t notified of the final number. On both Saturday and Sunday nights, some guests went without meals and an unlimited, all-you-can-eat buffet was converted to a limited, one-serving one. Mathews had advertised the tour to include two buffet dinners and two buffet breakfasts and claims he had to reimburse many guests due to the missed or reduced meals.

Mathews doesn’t allege breach of contract, but alleges the hotel “Sale Manager” defamed him by calling him a “dishonorable person,” which “almost incited a riot.” He alleges the defendants’ actions forced him to reimburse $3,000 to certain guests and caused him to suffer an additional $4,000 loss because some guests refused to pay apple-bites.jpgtheir balances owed. For the alleged defamation, he claims at least $450,000. As mentioned above, he also alleges a number of other torts.

If Mr. Mathews contends the hotel breached an agreement to provide sufficient food for 174 people, he should have included a breach of contract claim. Different policy considerations distinguish the law of torts from the law of contracts, and there are rules against trying to recover pain-and-suffering type damages when all you’ve suffered are disappointed economic expectations. If the case is really about false statements made by an agent of the hotel and not a contractual breach, more will be required than a vague statement about being “dishonorable.”

I mentioned this is the plaintiff’s fourth attempt to survive dismissal. Mathews originally filed a separate case against the hotel, alleging constitutional violations, defamation, and emotional distress. The court dismissed the constitutional claim because the defendant wasn’t a state actor as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The complaint hadn’t properly pled the elements required to assert diversity jurisdiction so the court gave Mathews a chance to amend his complaint to include the necessary allegations.

Mathews filed an amended complaint, adding Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc. as a defendant. But the complaint failed to plead the defendants’ citizenship so the court dismissed it with leave to file a second amended complaint if Mathews could cure the jurisdictional defect. The court explained that, under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(c)(1), corporations are citizens “of every State and foreign state by which it has been incorporated and of the State or foreign state where it has its principle place of business.”

Mathews tried again, filing a second amended complaint against Westin and Starwood with substantially the same allegations as before. He identified himself as a Pennsylvania citizen, Westin as a “US citizen incorporated in Virginia,” and Starwood as a “US citizen hotel incorporated in the state of Maryland.”

But the second amended complaint failed to state either defendant’s principal place of business. Once again, the court dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Pointing out that Mathews had been instructed how to cure the problem but hadn’t done so, the court concluded that further attempts to amend would be futile. The case was dismissed without prejudice to plaintiff refiling his claims in state court.

But Mr. Mathews didn’t re-file in state court. Instead, he brought this new case in federal court. If the court doesn’t dismiss it on res judicata grounds, it will likely dismiss it for failure to state a valid claim.

An essential requirement of any defamation action is that the alleged statement convey factual assertions. Pure expressions of opinion (i.e., those that neither state directly nor imply any assertion of objective fact) are protected by both the First Amendment and Section 12 of the Virginia Constitution. Whether a particular statement should be classified as fact or opinion is a threshold issue for the court to decide. Consequently, many libel and slander cases are dismissed at the outset and never reach a jury.

There’s not always a bright line between the two, and sometimes courts get it wrong. Yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed the decision of a Halifax County court to dismiss a defamation action on the ground the statement constituted opinion and not fact. The statement at issue was this: “Tharpe told me that Tharpe was going to screw the Authority like he did Fort Pickett.”

It’s certainly tempting to treat a statement like this as opinion, because whether or not someone got “screwed” is subject to differing viewpoints. But look closely. The speaker is not making the claim that Tharpe screwed the Authority or screwed Fort Pickett. What he is saying is that Tharpe TOLD him these things. Tharpe’s position in quotes.jpgthe trial court was that he never made such a statement. So the issue wasn’t whether or not getting “screwed” is a matter of fact or opinion, but whether it was a factual assertion to claim that Tharpe made this particular statement. The Virginia Supreme Court held that it was “indisputably capable of being proven true or false.”

The Virginia Supreme Court had not previously dealt with the issue of whether fabricated quotations might be actionable as defamation. Other courts, however, have supported the theory, and the Virginia Supreme Court found their reasoning persuasive.

The United States Supreme Court, for example, held in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine that falsely attributing a statement to another can harm that person’s reputation regardless of whether the factual matters in the quoted statement are true or false. The false attribution can cause the public to infer the plaintiff has a particular attitude or character trait that can damage his reputation.

In the Masson case, a psychoanalyst was falsely quoted as stating that he was “the greatest analyst who ever lived.” To determine whether the statement is actionable, it is not necessary to determine whether the psychoanalyst was, in fact, the greatest analyst who ever lived. Many would not want to associate with any analyst who would make such a bold and arrogant proclamation. Therefore, the harm to reputation lies in the false allegation that the analyst made the statement, and whether he made the statement is a factual matter capable of being proven.

The court noted in a footnote that there is no “wholesale defamation exemption” for statements of opinion because sometimes apparent expressions of opinion imply facts. While not discussed in the opinion, I think the alleged statement is particularly egregious because it attributes to Tharpe a statement that implies incriminating facts. If Tharpe had said that he had “screwed Fort Pickett,” I would argue that such a statement implies that Tharpe–as a matter of fact–acted dishonestly, committed fraud, or otherwise cheated Fort Pickett in some way. A reasonable listener hearing the alleged statement might have formed these conclusions and not just understood Tharpe as expressing his personal opinion that Fort Pickett got a bad deal.

In any event, the court held it was error to sustain the demurrer and remanded the case to the trial court.

Kenneth M. Seaton, sole proprietor of the Grant Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, brought a defamation action against TripAdvisor after the hotel was identified by the travel site as the dirtiest hotel in America. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, however, found that TripAdvisor’s list of “2011 Dirtiest Hotels” could not support a defamation claim and dismissed the case on August 22, 2012.

TripAdvisor relies solely on customer reviews to compile its “Dirtiest Hotels” list – it does not conduct an independent investigation of each hotel. Seaton claimed that TripAdvisor attempted to assure the public that its list is factual, reliable and trustworthy by including the following statements along with its list: (1) “World’s Most Trusted Travel Advice”; (2) “TripAdvisor lifts the lid on America’s Dirtiest Hotels”; (3) “Top 10 U.S. Crime-Scenes Revealed, According to Traveler Cleanliness Ratings”; (4) “Now, in its sixth year, and true to its promise to share the whole truth about hotels to help travelers plan their trips, TripAdvisor names and shames the nation’s most hair-raising hotels”; (5) “This year, the tarnished title of America’s dirtiest hotel goes to Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.” The list quoted a TripAdvisor user: “There was dirt at least ½ inch thick in the bathtub which was filled with lots of dark hair.” The list also featured a photograph of a ripped bedspread.

Defamation claims require proof of false statements or false implications. Seaton contended that by publishing its “2011 Dirtiest Hotels” list, TripAdvisor was implying that the Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center was, in fact, the dirtiest hotel in the United States and that a reasonable person reading the list would consider this supposed fact in making their travel plans. Seaton argued that the list was not mere hyperbole because it dirtyhotels.jpgcontained actual numerical rankings with comments suggesting that the rankings were based in actual fact.

The court agreed that a reasonable person might consider the list when making hotel plans, but found that “propensity to initiate negative mental contemplation on behalf of a potential patron” is not the test for defamation. In determining whether TripAdvisor’s list is defamatory, the court would not consider whether the list is compelling but rather whether a reasonable person could understand the language in question as an assertion of fact or instead merely hyperbolic opinion or rhetorical exaggeration.

The court found that neither the fact that TripAdvisor numbered its opinions one through ten nor that it supported its opinions with data converts its opinions to objective statements of fact. A reasonable person would not confuse a ranking system based on consumer reviews for an objective assertion of fact. Rather, a reasonable person would know that the list reflected the opinions of TripAdvisor’s online users. Seaton did not plead any facts that would lead the court to find that TripAdvisor made a statement of fact or of opinion that it intended readers to believe was based on facts. Finally, the court found that although unverified online user reviews are a poor evaluative method, the system is not sufficiently erroneous so as to be labeled defamatory. For these reasons, the court held that TripAdvisor’s “Dirtiest Hotels” list is unverifiable rhetorical hyperbole and could not form the basis of a defamation action.

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