Hypersensitivity is not a desirable personality trait if you are a plaintiff in a defamation case. If you’re the type of person who tends to jump to conclusions about an author’s intent when reading certain statements made about you on social media, you should think twice (and consult with a defamation attorney) before rushing off to sue the writer for libel. This is because when a judge is faced with the task of deciding whether to allow a defamation claim to go forward, one of the preliminary rulings he or she must make is about how a reasonable reader would interpret the words claimed to be defamatory. If most people reading the article or social-media post would not draw the same defamatory conclusions that you are drawing when they read the statement, your case will likely be dismissed at the outset.

When a statement is clear, straightforward and unambiguous, interpretation usually won’t be an issue. But sometimes even the most well-intentioned writer can express thoughts in a manner that implies hidden meaning to at least some readers. Defamation liability can arise out of a statement that is literally true if a defamatory meaning can be reasonably inferred. Key to this principle, however, is that the inferred meaning must be reasonable; it cannot extend beyond the “ordinary and common acceptation of the words used.” A hypersensitive plaintiff who resorts to twisted logic or an overly-technical interpretation to reach a defamatory understanding from non-defamatory words will not be successful in court. Before allowing a case to go to a jury, the judge will examine the circumstances surrounding the making and publication of the statement and decide whether innuendo arising from the statement could cause a reasonable reader to infer a defamatory message.

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As I have discussed on this blog before on several occasions, a literally true statement can give rise to a defamation claim if a reasonable listener would infer a defamatory message from the words (and images) used, even if the words themselves do not convey that defamatory meaning directly. If innuendo would cause a reasonable listener to “read between the lines” and infer that the speaker is communicating a defamatory statement about another individual despite the use of words that are not themselves false or defamatory, that can be sufficient to state a viable claim. This is the concept of “defamation by implication.” Earlier this month, in a case brought by a convicted felon, Judge Gibney of the Eastern District of Virginia permitted such a case to proceed to trial.

The case arose out of this CBS 6 broadcast in the Richmond area. Watch it carefully. Did you see or hear anything that would likely cause damage to someone’s reputation? Well, someone named Angela Engle Horne thought so, and so she sued the station for defamation, claiming that her reputation had been damaged by the story. Here’s what happened, according to papers filed in the case:

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A new law will go into effect on July 1, 2017, that creates what amounts to a qualified privilege against defamation actions for statements regarding matters of public concern that would be entitled to protection under the First Amendment. Under the amended and restated Va Code § 8.01-223.2, the immunity would be lost with respect to any statements made with actual malice (i.e., statements made with actual knowledge that they are false, or with reckless disregard for whether they are false) or “constructive knowledge” of the statements’ falsity. Significantly, because the General Assembly chose to incorporate the privilege into Virginia’s existing anti-SLAPP statute, if a defendant is successful in having a defamation case dismissed on grounds of this new statutory immunity, he may be entitled to reimbursement of his attorneys’ fees. The amendment appears to be designed to drastically expand Virginia’s anti-SLAPP statute (which had previously been limited to statements made at public hearings) and will almost certainly lead to an uptick in plea-in-bar hearings seeking quick dismissals and fee awards.

What is not yet clear to me is why “constructive knowledge” of falsity was included as an exception to the immunity. A person has constructive knowledge of a fact if, through the exercise of reasonable care, he should have known it, even if he didn’t actually know the fact. Including constructive knowledge as an exception eviscerates much of the statute’s potential deterrent effect. This is because virtually every facially valid defamation claim will involve an allegation that the defendant was had at least constructive knowledge that what he was saying was false and that he acted negligently with respect to uncovering the truth. To state a prima facie case for defamation, a private plaintiff must allege that the defendant either knew that the statement was false, or, believing the statement to be true, lacked a reasonable basis for such belief, or acted negligently in failing to determine the facts on which the publication was based. (See Lewis v. Kei, 281 Va. 715, 725 (2011)). In other words, if a plaintiff fails to allege that the defendant had at least constructive knowledge of falsity, the case will be dismissed on demurrer regardless of the anti-SLAPP immunity. On the other hand, if a plaintiff does allege (and eventually prove) constructive knowledge, the immunity will not apply. In short, it does not appear to me that there will be many situations in which this new “public concern” immunity will come into play. I suppose defendants will start opting to file pleas in bar in lieu of demurrers. We’ll have to wait and see how courts deal with this issue.

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The statute of limitations for defamation actions in Virginia is one year. This means that if somebody libels you on the Internet, you have just one year from the date of the defamatory post in which to file a lawsuit. A question I get asked a lot is, “what if someone defamed my character several years ago but I just found out about it last week?” Here in Virginia, the answer (I’m sorry to say) is: it doesn’t matter. The statute of limitations begins to run when the injury occurs, not when you discover you’ve been injured, and courts have held that when someone defames your character, your reputation suffers even if you don’t know about it. Although it’s certainly true that you won’t become emotionally upset or embarrassed about false statements made about you behind your back, the fact remains that emotional distress is not a necessary element of a cause of action for defamation, and statues of limitation begin to run once the elements of the claim have been met. When a person’s reputation is unfairly attacked with false statements, the injury is immediate: people who know you and who read the statement and believe it will think less of you as a person, regardless of whether you know about it and regardless of whether you have suffered any emotional distress because of it.

Certain causes of action in Virginia–like fraud–are subject to a “discovery rule,” meaning that the cause of action will not accrue, and the statute of limitations will not begin to run, until the alleged misconduct is either discovered, or, by the exercise of due diligence, reasonably should have been discovered. Defamation claims, however, do not enjoy the benefit of the discovery rule, so the limitations period begins to run as soon as an actionable statement is published with the requisite intent. (See, e.g., Jordan v. Shands, 500 S.E.2d 215, 218 (Va. 1998) (holding that “when an injury is sustained in consequence of the wrongful or negligent act of another and the law affords a remedy, the statute of limitations immediately attaches.”)). Illustrating this point is the case of Robert L. Matthews v. Tracy M. Gee, decided March 9, 2017, by the Eastern District of Virginia.

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When suing for libel or slander in Virginia, it helps if you can make out a claim for that form of defamation known as defamation per se. If the judge agrees that your claim qualifies, he or she will instruct the jury to presume general damages and authorize it to award punitive damages even in the absence of compensatory damages. However, too often, plaintiffs place unneeded emphasis on trying to characterize their claim as defamation per se and overlook regular garden-variety defamation, known as defamation per quod. Defamation per quod can give rise to fairly substantial liability, as Rolling Stone found out when a former University of Virginia won $3 million based on a false portrayal of her in an article about rape on campus.

Defamatory words fall into the “per se” category if they: (1) impute to a person the commission of some criminal offense involving moral turpitude for which the party, if the charge is true, may be indicted and punished; (2) impute that a person is infected with some contagious disease, where if the charge is true, it would exclude the party from society; (3) impute to a person unfitness to perform the duties of an office or employment of profit, or want of integrity in the discharge of the duties of such an office or employment; or (4) prejudice the plaintiff in his or her profession or trade. (See Carwile v. Richmond Newspapers, 196 Va. 1, 7 (1954)).

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Clever defamation lawyers seem to have developed a new technique for bringing lawsuits against the rich and powerful. Step One: Announce to the world that a public figure has mistreated you in some way. Step Two: Wait for the public figure to issue a statement disputing your story and proclaiming innocence. Step Three: Sue the public figure for defamation on the theory that the public figure falsely communicated to the public that you are a liar. Sound familiar?

In 2005, California lawyer Tamara Green told the Today Show that Bill Cosby drugged and groped her. Years later, speaking to Newsweek, Cosby’s publicist responded to Green’s accusation as follows: “This is a 10-year-old, discredited accusation that proved to be nothing at the time, and is still nothing.” Ms. Green then sued Cosby for defamation, complaining that “in an effort to continue the public branding of [Green] as a liar, Defendant Cosby…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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With all the hand-wringing over fake news these days, many are wondering whether it isn’t actionable libel to publish false news accounts. Take “Pizzagate,” for example. Shortly before the election, rumors began circulating on the Internet that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign manager, John Podesta, were running a child sex-slave operation in the back of family-friendly Washington pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. As ridiculous as that sounds, the message reached a massive audience on social media and before long, the restaurant was receiving death threats and other threatening messages on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. People started trashing the business on Google and Yelp. Eventually, a young man from North Carolina traveled to the restaurant to personally investigate the story and rescue any sex slaves in need of his assistance. He brought an assault rifle with him. It’s probably safe to assume that Comet’s business has suffered.

If Hillary Clinton is running a child sex-slave ring, she isn’t doing it at Comet Ping Pong: the story was pure fiction. So what’s a business like Comet to do? Defamation claims are usually about the protection of individuals’ personal reputations. In this situation, false news articles were being published about Comet’s business itself rather than about any particular individual associated with the business. In short, it doesn’t matter. Corporations are treated like people in most contexts, and this one is no different. Comet could conceivably sue for trade libel, common-law defamation, tortious interference, or business conspiracy, among other claims. Let’s focus on the commercial defamation angle.

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When I wrote about the elements of defamation back in 2013, I noted that one of the requirements for a successful defamation action is that the statement at issue be “defamatory in nature.” In other words, to be actionable, that statement must convey a defamatory meaning to the reader or listener; it cannot be merely insulting or provocative. What does it mean to be defamatory? The definition varies from state to state. In New York, a defamatory statement is one that exposes an individual “to public hatred, shame, obloquy, contumely, odium, contempt, ridicule, aversion, ostracism, degradation, or disgrace, or…induce[s] an evil opinion of one in the minds of right-thinking persons, and…deprives one of…confidence and friendly intercourse in society.” (See Celle v. Filipino Reporter Enterprises Inc., 209 F.3d 163, 177 (2d Cir. 2000)). Here in Virginia, defamatory words are those “tend[ing] so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.” (See Schaecher v. Bouffault, 290 Va. 83 (2015)). Words that rise to this level have been said to carry the requisite degree of “defamatory sting.”

Regardless of which state’s definition is applied, statements that tend to expose another to hatred, ridicule, or contempt are generally considered defamatory in nature. Disparaging statements about another’s moral values, personal integrity, or financial standing may fall into this category. Note, however, that although cases often recite that being made to look “ridiculous” in the community is sufficient to convey defamatory meaning, defamatory meaning is just one element of a defamation action. The tort of defamation also requires a false statement of fact. Therefore, not every statement that tends to expose another to public ridicule will be actionable in court.

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In an opinion published earlier this week by a federal court in Alexandria, the court analyzed a defamation claim brought by a sales representative against her former employer, manufacturer of the Mammotome breast biopsy system. Her former supervisor, after terminating her employment, had met with her largest customer to introduce her replacement to them, and when asked about her whereabouts, the supervisor responded that the employee had “up and left” and added that she was “not a closer.” The customer was not pleased, as they had held the employee in very high regard, and when they heard the news that she had parted ways with the manufacturer, they reached out to her and helped her land a job with another medical device company. The employee was also not pleased when she heard this, and she sued her old boss for defamation. The court denied her claim and entered summary judgment in favor of her former employer.

The case is Jasna Kuhar v. Devicor Products, Inc. The first statement at issue was that of Ms. Kuhar’s former supervisor, Joseph Baia, who told the customer that Ms. Kuhar had left Devicor voluntarily, without giving prior notice (which is how the court interpreted the “up and left” statement). As a preliminary matter, the court noted that this was a statement of fact, capable of being proven true or false (which is a prerequisite for defamation liability). The court disagreed, however, with Ms. Kuhar’s argument that the statement was “per se” defamatory in that it disparaged her qualifications as a sales representative. Ms. Kuhar presented no evidence to suggest that immediate resignation was frowned upon in the sales profession. (And at-will employees have the right to resign without giving advance notice). Here, Ms. Kuhar’s offer letter stated expressly that “Your relationship with the Company will therefore be at-will, which means you or the company may terminate your employment at any time, with or without cause or notice.” The court also noted that the undisputed evidence not only showed that the statement had not prejudiced her in her profession or trade, but that she had not, in fact, suffered any damage. Her customers testified that they continued to hold her in high regard, and even helped her find another job.

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Since the Supreme Court decided the seminal Curtis Publishing case back in 1967, public figures have played an important role in U.S. defamation jurisprudence. That case held that it should be more difficult for public figures to sue for libel and slander than ordinary private citizens, because if public figures have voluntarily thrust themselves “into the vortex” of a public debate, they should assume that they may become the subject of public discussion and should be willing to accept the risk that on occasion, less-careful fact-checkers may say certain things about them that aren’t true. Therefore, although private citizens will only need to demonstrate negligence to recover damages caused by defamation, public figures need to prove the defendant either knew he or she was spreading false information, or acted with reckless disregard for whether the information was true or false. This heightened level of wrongful intent is known as malice.

Some erroneously equate public figures with celebrities. In reality, the level of fame a plaintiff needs to achieve before being categorized as a “public figure” by a Virginia court is much lower than that of household-name celebrities. Moreover, courts recognize “limited purpose” public figures and subject them to the same obstacles regular all-purpose public figures face when the alleged defamation is based on the subject matter of their public participation and involvement.

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