Credit reporting agencies make mistakes. Even when they’re not at fault, the credit reports they prepare often contain inaccurate information about consumers. When this happens, can the consumer sue the credit reporting agency for defamation? Well, maybe. Virginia defamation laws usually apply where false statements have been made to others that cause harm to one’s reputation, but these are state laws which may be preempted by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. Federal laws preempt state laws when they apply to the same situation.

The relevant part of the FCRA provides that, with certain exceptions, “no consumer may bring any action or proceeding in the nature of defamation, …with respect to the reporting of information against any consumer reporting agency, any user of information, or any person who furnishes information to a consumer reporting agency, based on information disclosed pursuant to section 1681g, 1681h, or 1681m of this title, or based on information disclosed by a user of a consumer report to or for a consumer against whom the user has taken adverse action, based in whole or in part on the report except as to false information furnished with malice or willful intent to injure such consumer.” That’s a mouthful, but the key point to remember is this: you can’t sue a credit reporting agency for making an innocent mistake; to bring a defamation action based on an inaccuracy in your credit report, the falsity must have been made with malice or a willful intent to harm the consumer.

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Publication is an essential element of any defamation claim. It exists when a communication is made to a third party (i.e., someone other than the person defamed, and other than the person making the statement). This is because the essence of libel and slander is the diminution of one’s reputation in the eyes of others. A false accusation made privately to you may be insulting, but it wouldn’t be defamatory because a statement not heard by others would not affect your reputation. But what if the false accusation is made in a setting that isn’t so private—a courtroom, for example? Could a devious tortfeasor avoid defamation liability by addressing his comments only to the plaintiff despite speaking loudly enough that third persons are likely to hear the statements?

Most Virginia cases defining publication describe a situation where a statement is made directly to a third party. (See, for example, Thalhimer Bros. v. Shaw, 156 Va. 863, 871 (1931) (defining publication as the “uttering the slanderous words to some third person so as to be heard and understood by such person”); Tomlin v. Int’l Bus. Machines Corp., 84 Va. Cir. 280 (2012) (referring to “the element of publication to a third party”)). Publication is a broader concept than these definitions suggest. The Restatement defines publication more comprehensively as communication of defamatory matter “intentionally or by a negligent act to one other than the person defamed.” The Virginia Supreme Court implicitly adopted the Restatement position in Food Lion, Inc. v. Melton, 250 Va. 144 (1995), where it held that the publication element is satisfied where, “when the defendant addressed the defamatory words to the plaintiff, another person was present, heard the words spoken, and understood the statement as referring to the plaintiff.”
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Has an author deemed it appropriate to include your name in a list of the “Ten Most Dangerous Child Molesters” or the “Top Five Dumbasses of All Time”? According to a recent opinion authored by Judge O’Grady of the Eastern District of Virginia, if you’re claiming defamation based on an Internet “listicle,” chances are you’re going to lose, simply by virtue of the fact that the ubiquitous listicle format is a pretty good sign that what you’re reading is opinion, regardless of the contents of the list.

List-format articles (“listicles”) are everywhere these days. They’re designed to convey ideas in an easy-to-digest format, making them particularly well suited for mobile devices. By their very nature, Judge O’Grady wrote, top-ten lists and other listicles signal to the reader that the content to follow consists of the author’s opinion, rather than provable fact. “These finite lists inherently require authors to exercise opinion and discretion as they choose and rank who or what to include,” the court observed. As such, courts will most likely find statements made therein to be nonactionable opinion, even if they might be construed as statements of fact in other contexts.

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Most Virginia litigators probably associate the Supreme Court’s decisions in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal with an increased pleading burden in federal court, requiring that lawsuits allege “plausible” claims rather than just remote possibilities. In the limited context of pleading defamation claims, however, the plausibility standard applicable in federal court appears to be making it easier to survive preliminary dismissal motions in federal court than in Virginia state court.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Potter v. Associated Press, in which a federal court allowed a defamation claim to go forward despite the absence of facts sufficient to show defamatory meaning, reasoning that it was plausible the claim was valid. Last month, in the latest example of this phenomenon, the Eastern District of Virginia held that unlike in state court, defamation claims can survive even if they do not allege the exact words used. Why? Because all that is needed to survive a motion to dismiss in federal court is a “short and plain” statement of the claim demonstrating a plausible right to relief. A complaint may be plausible on its face even if it fails to set forth the exact words allegedly used by the defendant.

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Insults are not usually deemed sufficiently harmful to give rise to a legal cause of action. The law expects people to have skin thick enough to withstand a certain amount of criticism and unpleasantness. There is, however, an “insulting words” statute in Virginia (Va. Code § 8.01-45) that prohibits insults that are so offensive that they tend to violence and breach of the peace. To state a claim for insulting words under the statute, all that is required is that the words (1) be insults and (2) “tend to violence and breach of the peace.”

“What about freedom of speech?” you might be wondering. In the seminal case of Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942), the Supreme Court held that the punishment of certain narrowly limited classes of speech, such as “fighting words” that tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace, would not raise a constitutional concern. The Supreme Court later clarified that fighting words could only be restricted upon the satisfaction of a rigorous “clear and present danger” test. See Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949) (holding that “freedom of speech…is…protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest”).
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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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The right of privacy has been defined as the right to be left alone. After Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis co-authored an influential article in the Harvard Law Review in 1890, states across the country began to formally recognize and protect invasions of privacy rights. Invasion of privacy came to be categorized into four distinct types: (1) the unreasonable “intrusion upon seclusion” of another person, (2) publicity that unreasonably places another person in a “false light” before the public, (3) the unreasonable publication of another’s private life, and (4) misappropriation of another’s name or likeness.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re a Virginia resident and believe someone has invaded your privacy. Before you get too excited about all the different causes of action you might have grounds to pursue, let me share with you the harsh reality that–with one narrow exception–Virginia recognizes none of these claims. Virginia does have a statute providing a remedy for a very limited and specific type of misappropriation of another’s likeness, as well as a law addressing computer invasion of privacy, but there is no cause of action in Virginia for “invasion of privacy” as there is in many other states.
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In every defamation case, it’s necessary to determine whether the plaintiff should be treated as a public figure, a public official, or a regular Average Joe. This is because “public” plaintiffs face a much higher burden of proof than “private” plaintiffs. A private plaintiff normally only needs to prove that a defamatory statement was made with negligence in regard to whether the statement was true or false, whereas a public plaintiff generally needs to show that the defendant acted with malice, which is much more difficult to prove than negligence. There are many justifications for the discrepancy, but the most frequent cited are that (a) public plaintiffs voluntarily assumed the spotlight, and they should know that having people talk loosely about them comes with the territory, and (b) by virtue of their notoriety, public plaintiffs have more opportunities to rebut defamatory statements. Courts sometimes use the terms “public figure” and “public official” interchangeably, but they are conceptually different, and different considerations determine whether a plaintiff should be treated as one or the other.

The main distinguishing feature is that public officials are not necessarily attention-seeking, and as a result, they are not always treated as “public” plaintiffs who would need to show malice in order to prevail in a defamation action.
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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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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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