You may have heard that truth is a complete defense to an action for libel or slander. This is essentially correct, but it would be more accurate to say that to win a defamation case, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the statements at issue are false. In other words, the burden of demonstrating falsity lies with the person bringing the case; the defendant does not need to prove that the statements were true. If the jury finds that the odds of a defamatory statement being true are exactly 50-50, the defendant wins, not because “truth is a complete defense,” but because the plaintiff failed to convince the jury that the statement was false.

So if you’re a prospective plaintiff considering suing someone for defamation, you need to understand that you’re not going to win unless the words that were spoken or written about you are false. And when I say “false,” I mean that the part of the statement that is hurtful or offensive–the “sting” of the statement–needs to be false in all material respects. If the stinging words are substantially true, forget litigation. Filing a lawsuit is only going to invoke the Streisand Effect and bring more attention to the situation, resulting in further harm to your reputation.

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As a general proposition, libel and slander liability requires a defamatory statement of fact; expressions of opinion are not actionable. Distinguishing assertions of fact from expressions of opinion, however, is not always an easy task. Factual statements are generally those that contain—expressly or impliedly—a provably false factual connotation. “Mr. Smith drank ten shots of tequila last night” is a statement of fact; either he drank ten shots or he didn’t. Expressions of opinion, on the other hand, are relative in nature and depend largely upon the speaker’s personal viewpoint. They tend to consist of evaluative statements reflecting the speaker’s own political, moral, or aesthetic views. “I think Mr. Smith drinks more tequila than he really should” would likely be deemed an expression of opinion by most courts. But consider the statement “I think Mr. Smith must be an alcoholic.” Fact or opinion?

Statements that appear at first to be opinions but which could fairly be interpreted as implying the existence of facts not disclosed by the speaker are treated by Virginia courts as opinions “laden with factual content,” which is a sufficient predicate upon which to base a defamation action. (See Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Lipscomb, 234 Va. 277, 298 n.8 (1987)). Ultimately, whether a statement of apparent opinion will be deemed sufficiently laden with factual content to support a defamation action will depend on a number of factors that would influence how a reasonable reader or listener would most likely interpret the statement. Considerations include the following:

To bring a successful defamation claim in Virginia state courts, it is necessary to allege facts sufficient to demonstrate to the judge that the statement claimed to be defamatory is capable of conveying a defamatory meaning to a reasonable audience. Before a defamation claim can be presented to a jury, the judge needs to make a preliminary determination that the statement at issue conveys factual information (rather than mere opinions) and that such factual information could be reasonably interpreted as having a defamatory meaning. What is a trial court supposed to do if the complaint contains only a short, out-of-context excerpt of the defendant’s statement?

In federal court, some judges have denied motions to dismiss such claims on the theory that the merits of the claim—while not apparent from the face of the complaint—are plausible and might be proven at trial. In state court, however, guidance from the Virginia Supreme Court suggests that libel and slander cases should be dismissed on demurrer if defamatory meaning is not readily apparent. In some situations, plaintiffs’ lawyers will craft the complaint in such a way as to make an out-of-context statement appear defamatory, when the surrounding statements omitted from the allegations would demonstrate that the statement as a whole could only be reasonably interpreted as hyperbole or opinion. When defense counsel is faced with such a situation, the smart move is to move for a bill of particulars.

Trial courts can order a bill of particulars “to amplify any pleading that does not provide notice of a claim or defense adequate to permit the adversary a fair opportunity to respond or prepare the case.” Va. Sup. Ct. Rule 3:7(a). When a plaintiff claims defamation, the preferred practice is to include the entire statement (verbatim) as well as all relevant surrounding details of the statement sufficient to demonstrate context. When such details are not included, “they are proper matters to be stated in a bill of particulars.” Fed. Land Bank of Baltimore v. Birchfield, 173 Va. 200, 217 (1939). The Virginia Supreme Court reiterated this principle as recently as 2006, when it expressly recognized that “the particulars of [an] allegedly defamatory statement may be supplied in a bill of particulars.” See Government Micro Res., Inc. v. Jackson, 271 Va. 29, 38 (2006).

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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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