Articles Posted in Damages and Remedies

According to The Virginian-Pilot, Portsmouth attorney Sterling H. Weaver was “convicted in Portsmouth General District Court of assault” in June 2006. A new lawsuit filed by that attorney alleges that a WAVY-TV report, broadcast in February 2014, reported similarly that “in 2006, a Chesapeake judge sentenced [Mr. Weaver] to 30 days in jail for grabbing a prosecutor by the throat after she asked to postpone a case.” (The quote is from the complaint, not the WAVY-TV report). Mr. Weaver says that he heard the report while in jail, where he was staying after being “indicted for assault on a law enforcement officer and sexual battery of that officer.” The report was defamatory, the lawsuit claims, because “the 2006 charge of assault was dismissed.”

Those of you who share with me an unnatural interest in Virginia defamation law are naturally curious as to what the issues in this case are going to be. There are several in my mind, but here are the first few that jump out:
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Before rushing to the courthouse to sue someone for libel or slander, there are a number of things one should consider. For one thing, even if no counterclaim is filed, filing a defamation action opens the door to all kinds of personal details about your life that you may prefer to keep private. To prevail, a plaintiff needs to prove that the defamatory statement was false. The defendant–the person who made the statement–doesn’t need to prove anything. Think about what that means as a practical matter. If someone Tweeted to a million followers that you are some kind of sexual deviant and that you had sex with a wildebeest (and assuming that the Tweet was understood and believed by readers as a literal statement and not as mere rhetorical hyperbole), and you decide to sue for defamation, you will need to prove that you did NOT actually have sex with a wildebeest. How does one prove such a thing? Well, generally by presenting evidence to the jury about what kind of sex life you DO have so that they can see that you are not the sort of person who would do such a thing. Or maybe you throw in some evidence about your documented fear of antelope. Either way, it could be embarrassing.

There’s also the libel-proof doctrine to consider. Because the tort of defamation is concerned primarily with damage caused to one’s reputation, some courts have held that when a plaintiff’s reputation is already so tarnished at the time a defamatory statement is published that it would be virtually impossible to make the reputation worse, the plaintiff will be deemed “libel proof” and the case will be dismissed prior to trial. If the defendant claims you are libel proof, think of what fun the discovery process will be for you, as the defendant goes about digging for evidence about how bad your reputation already is.
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Defamation law affords remedies to plaintiffs whose reputations have been tarnished by the false and damaging statements of others. But defamation plaintiffs face a particular dilemma: because legal proceedings are generally open to the public, filing a lawsuit over the libel or slander usually results in further publicity of the very statements the plaintiff wants to suppress. This has become known as the Streisand Effect, and is the same dilemma faced by plaintiffs seeking to enforce contracts containing non-disparagement provisions.

A vivid example is provided by the case of Dr. Steven A. Guttenberg v. Dr. Robert W. Emery, currently pending in District of Columbia federal court. Doctors Guttenberg and Emery were joint shareholders of an oral surgery practice for roughly 20 years, but their relationship soured and litigation ensured in 2008. The doctors settled that case with a settlement agreement containing a non-disparagement provision that restricted each of them from making statements concerning the other that might be harmful to reputation.
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Courts grant temporary injunctions sparingly and only after the moving party has alleged and proved facts entitling it to relief. Injunctive relief generally is not available to prohibit the making of defamatory statements as prior restraints on speech violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Injunctions may sometimes be granted, however, where the defamatory words are made in the furtherance of the commission of another intentional tort. Care must be taken to ensure that any injunction is narrowly tailored to achieve the pin-pointed objective of the needs of the case, as prior restraints on speech are considered the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.

In Chevaldina v. R.K./FL Management, Inc., a Florida appellate court found that the trial court had abused its discretion in granting an injunction against defamatory speech. Irina Chevaldina was an unhappy former tenant of R.K. Management which owned and managed commercial properties in South Florida. When R.K. discovered that Ms. Chevaldina was the author of anonymous, unflattering blog posts about it, it added several tort claims to its already pending action for defamation per se and libel against the previously anonymous blogger. The tort claims included counts for tortious interference with contractual and advantageous business relationships.
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The First Amendment protects anonymous speech, including online reviews of products and services written by people using fake names. The right to anonymous speech, however, is not absolute. Defamatory speech, whether or not anonymous, is not entitled to protection, as there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact. If someone pretending to be a former customer writes a defamatory review on Yelp, Amazon, or some other consumer-review site, but doesn’t disclose his or her real name, how does the business owner go about identifying the individual so that the individual can be held accountable? The answer lies in Section 8.01-407.1 of the Code of Virginia, which sets forth a specific procedure for uncovering the identities of people who communicate anonymously over the Internet.

The proper application of this statute was recently discussed in Yelp v. Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, a case arising out of Alexandria. As of October 2012, Yelp’s site contained seventy-five reviews about Hadeed Carpet Cleaning, many of them critical. Included among these reviews were assertions by anonymous authors claiming to have been charged for work never performed and claiming that “precious rugs were shrunk.” Hadeed sued the anonymous authors for defamation, alleging that the reviewers were never actual customers of Hadeed.

After filing the lawsuit, Hadeed promptly issued a subpoena duces tecum to Yelp, demanding the production of documents that would enable Hadeed to identify the authors of the allegedly defamatory reviews. Yelp objected, arguing that Hadeed had not complied with the requirements of Section 8.01-407.1. Hadeed revised its subpoena to comply with the statute, but Yelp continued to object and refused to comply. On a motion to compel compliance, the Circuit Court for the City of Alexandria held that Hadeed’s subpoena satisfied the requirements of both the statute and the First Amendment, and ordered Yelp to disclose the information. Yelp refused, and was held in contempt. It then appealed that ruling to the Virginia Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction to consider appeals of civil contempt orders), arguing that the First Amendment requires a showing of merit on both the law and facts Rugs.jpgbefore a subpoena duces tecum to identify an anonymous speaker can be enforced. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding in a case of first impression that Section 8.01-407.1 is not unconstitutional and that it alone provides the unmasking standard in Virginia.

In Virginia, a statement may constitute defamation per se if it imputes an unfitness to perform the duties of a job or a lack of integrity in the performance of those duties, or if it prejudices the plaintiff in its profession or trade. Corporations, like people, can be defamed in this manner. To prejudice a plaintiff in its profession or trade, the statements must relate to the skills or character required to carry out the particular occupation of the plaintiff. Examples include statements that cast aspersions on the target’s honesty, credit, efficiency, or its prestige or standing in its field of business. The advantages to a plaintiff when the words at issue are declared defamatory per se (as opposed to per quod) are significant: compensatory damages will be presumed and need not be proven, and punitive damages may be awarded even if compensatory damages are not.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia applied these principles in JTH Tax, Inc. v. Grabert. JTH Tax (better known as Liberty Tax Service) franchises tax preparation centers throughout the United States. Trisha Grabert had signed four franchise agreements but was terminated by Liberty due to her alleged failure to submit required reports and pay monies owed. A disgruntled Grabert resorted to www.unhappyfranchisee.com and Facebook, where she posted numerous statements asserting, among other things, that (1) Liberty’s quarterly results were “lies and sloppy;” (2) Liberty “bribed” an individual “to testify falsely;” (3) Liberty was engaged in “unlawful actions” that “interfered with [Grabert’s] success;” (4) Liberty “steal[s]” tax stores from franchisees; (5) Liberty is “dirty and getting sloppy so they will take your first born to save their tail right now from crippling losses and a shutdown;” and (6) “Liberty Tax, as a whole” are “crooks.”

Liberty sued Grabert for defamation per se, as well as for breach of the notes and franchise agreements. The court found that the statements imputed a lack of integrity to Liberty, prejudiced Liberty in its profession, and cast aspersions on its honesty, efficiency, prestige and standing in its field. Because Grabert failed to appear and defend the accuracy of her statements, the court held that the exhibits were sufficient to demonstrate defamation taxes.jpgper se. (Note: Oddly, the court did not address whether the statements could be interpreted as mere rhetorical hyperbole or other non-actionable opinion).

On May 31, 2013, the Fourth Circuit reversed a $4 million verdict against U.S. Bancorp for defamation, finding that the amount was excessive and/or unsupported because the jury apparently based its verdict on expert testimony of lost profits admitted in violation of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Still, in MyGallons, LLC v. U.S. Bancorp, the court found that Bancorp’s public statements refuting the plaintiff’s press release were sufficient to support defamation liability, so it ordered a new trial on damages only.

When Steve Verona conceived of a prepaid consumer gas card program, he contacted Voyager Fleet Systems, Inc., a subsidiary of U.S. Bancorp, about processing the program’s payments. Voyager operates a payment processing network for commercial and fleet gas purchases but was not set up to issue consumer gas cards. Verona explained his program to Bancorp executives, one of whom directed Verona to work with an authorized reseller of the Voyager payment processing system, “GoGas,” as Bancorp would not work with him until the program was larger. GoGas submitted and Bancorp approved Verona’s fleet card application and issued Verona several dozen cards using the Voyager payment network. Verona distributed the cards to family and friends who used the cards to purchase gas. Verona branded the program “MyGallons.”

Internally, Bancorp stated that MyGallons was an approved Voyager fleet card account and that it was working to expand the program. Bancorp began drafting a new contract for its relationship with MyGallons. Bancorp, GoGas and Verona worked to design fleet cards with MyGallons and Voyager logos on them.

Many jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, follow the old common law rule that equity will not enjoin a libel. The First Amendment carries a presumption against prior restraints, but does not pose an absolute bar to injunctive relief in defamation actions. Still, most courts are extremely reluctant to grant equitable relief in actions for libel, slander, invasion of privacy, and related actions, due in no small part to the fact that money damages are usually adequate to compensate the plaintiff.

Recently, in Pennsylvania, Dr. Steven R. Graboff, a board certified orthopaedic surgeon and expert witness, tried unsuccessfully to obtain an injunction against the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), requiring them to remove from their website an article that portrayed him in a false light. In an earlier action, Graboff had sued for false light invasion of privacy based on the offending article and a jury awarded him $196,000 in economic and non-economic damages. After the lawsuit, however, AAOS refused to take down the article. So Dr. Graboff sued them again, alleging “continued tortious conduct.”

He sought an injunction as well as additional compensatory and punitive damages, claiming AAOS intentionally and maliciously disregarded his rights by keeping the harmful article on the website in willful disregard of the earlier judgment. AAOS moved to dismiss this new action on several grounds.

The Internet search giant Google periodically issues “Transparency Reports” which summarize government requests for removal of content from the Internet and Google’s response to the requests. Google also discloses statistics regarding requests received from copyright holders. The latest report, issued for the last six months of 2012, reveals that Google received 2,285 government requests to remove 24,179 pieces of content during that time period – a significant increase from the first six months of 2012 during which it received 1,811 requests to remove 18,070 pieces of content. By a large margin, the number one reason for a removal request is claimed defamation, followed by privacy and security reasons, trademark and copyright infringement, violence, impersonation, government criticism, bullying, national security, adult content, hate speech, religious offense, drug abuse, electoral law, geographical dispute, suicide promotion and “other.”

The large increase in removal requests is mostly due to clips of the movie “Innocence of Muslims” and Brazil’s most recent elections. Twenty countries asked Google to review YouTube videos containing clips of “Innocence of Muslims.” Seventeen of those countries asked Google to remove the videos. Although Google restricted the videos from view in some countries, it did not remove the content from others. Google received 316 requests for removal of information relating to alleged violations of Brazil’s electoral code. Although it removed some content in response to court decisions, it is appealing other cases on the ground of freedom of expression under the Brazilian Constitution. Also related to the elections, Google received requests from a prosecutor, an attorney and a judge to remove blog posts and search results that were allegedly defamatory. Google refused to remove this content.

The latest report shows that Google readily removes content that infringes a protected copyright or trademark, and that it complies with court orders to remove defamatory matter. However, Google is typically unwilling to remove allegedly defamatory material that has not been declared as such by a court of law. For example, Google scrub.jpgrefused to remove YouTube videos that allegedly defamed a school administrator, police officers, government officials and prosecutors, and it only age-restricted an allegedly defamatory video showing Argentina’s president in a compromising position. However, Google did remove items that a court had ruled defamatory to a man and his family, and in response to a court order, it removed a blog post that allegedly defamed a retired military officer accused of business gain through political ties.

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.

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