Articles Posted in Defamation Per Se

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 ยง 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 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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As a business owner, you can’t control everything your employees will do or say. What if one of them defames the character of another employee while on the job? Can the business be held responsible? If the employee uttered the defamatory words while performing the employer’s business and acting within the scope of his or her employment, then yes, the employer can be held liable for defamation. How does one determine whether an employee’s statements were made with the “scope of employment”? In Virginia, an act will be considered within the scope of employment if it was (1) expressly or impliedly directed by the employer, or is naturally incident to the business, and (2) performed with the intent to further the employer’s interest, or from some impulse or emotion that was the natural consequence of an attempt to do the employer’s business, and did not arise wholly from some external, independent, and personal motive on the part of the employee to do the act upon his own account. (See Kensington Assocs. v. West, 234 Va. 430, 432 (1987)). If a plaintiff alleges the existence of an employment relationship, it becomes the employer’s burden to prove that the statement was not made within the scope of employment. Absent such proof, the employer is on the hook.

Last week, a defamation case against Bio-Medical Applications of Virginia, Inc. (doing business as Fresenius Medical Care Dominion) was allowed to go forward. The Amended Complaint filed in the case alleges that a Fresenius employee emailed to coworkers various false statements suggesting that the plaintiff (a registered nurse) had a complete disregard for patient welfare. For example, the alleged emails attributed to the plaintiff statements such as “[the patient] just needs a little bleach in his lines” and, in reference to another patient, “all she needs is a good shot of air. That’ll take care of her.” Another email accused the plaintiff of saying, “Well isn’t it about time?” after another patient had died. Fresenius Medical Care filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the complaint failed to plead sufficient facts to hold the employer liable for the statements of its employees, and that the elements of defamation had not been satisfied. The court disagreed on both counts and denied the motion.
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Extortion is a crime. Statements that falsely accuse another of committing a crime often constitute defamation per se in Virginia, particularly where the crime is one involving “moral turpitude.” Does it follow, then, that false accusations of extortion will automatically qualify as defamation per se? The answer, which will undoubtedly surprise many of you, is no. The reason lies in the importance of context in defamation actions.

A good illustration comes from the Tenth Circuit, which issued its decision in Hogan v. Winder a few days ago. Chris Hogan worked as a consultant for the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (“UTOPIA”), a state agency charged with upgrading high-speed Internet access. In the spring of 2011, Hogan began to suspect that UTOPIA’s executive director unfairly favored a bid for a contract from the company where the director’s brother worked, and he expressed his suspicions to UTOPIA’s plant manager. He was terminated shortly thereafter. Believing that his termination was retaliatory, he hired a lawyer and sent UTOPIA a draft complaint along with certain settlement demands, pointing out that the public scrutiny that would result from filing the lawsuit would essentially destroy the company. In a response, UTOPIA’s attorney characterized Hogan’s demands as “extortion” and “blackmail.”
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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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In James M. Tharpe, Jr. v. Rudy K. Lawidjaja, currently pending in the Lynchburg Division of the Western District of Virginia, plaintiff James Tharpe, a professional soccer coach and part-time model, alleges that photographer Rudy K. Lawidjaja persuaded him to pose nude after assuring him that no photographs showing Tharpe’s genitals or buttocks would be distributed. Lawidjaja took numerous nude photos of Tharpe and promoted him as a model. Eventually, the parties’ relationship deteriorated. Tharpe refused Lawidjaja’s invitation to quit his job as a soccer coach to relocate to the Washington, D.C. area and serve as Lawidjaja’s “house model.” Instead, he moved to Tennessee, where he coached soccer for a year, and later accepted a coaching position with Central Virginia United Soccer Club (“CVUS”) in Lynchburg.

In August 2011, CVUS notified Tharpe that an Internet search of his name returned inappropriate and embarrassing photographs of which parties associated with the soccer club did not approve. According to the court’s examination of the record, Lawidjaja had posted nude photographs of Tharpe on his website as well as other sites, identified Tharpe as a “porn star,” and digitally altered the photographs to depict Tharpe with an erection and ejaculating for the camera. The court found that Lawidjaja tagged these pornographic photographs with keywords to link the photos to CVUS (Tharpe’s employer, which had nothing to do with the photos) so that any Google search for CVUS would return the photographs. Tharpe sued Lawidjaja for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other torts.
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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).

Workplace defamation suits will usually raise privilege issues. When one employee complains to a manager or supervisor about another employee and falsely maligns the other employee’s reputation in the process, the court will need to sort out whether the complaint is protected by qualified privilege. If it is, the statement can’t form the basis for a claim unless it was made with common-law malice or made to persons having no business hearing it. Common-law malice is different than the constitutional “New York Times” malice so often discussed in analyzing defamation liability. Common-law malice generally refers to some form of ill will on behalf of the speaker, motivated by things like hatred or a desire for revenge. In Virginia, there is a presumption that the speaker acted without malice.

When a slanderous statement occurs at work, it often involves an accusation that a co-worker is unfit to perform the duties of his or her job, due to a lack of competence or lack of integrity. Statements such as these which prejudice a person is his or her profession fall into the defamation per se category, which means that a jury can presume the statement was harmful to the plaintiff, even if special damages are not proven.

Earlier this month, a case from Stafford County was removed to federal court in Alexandria. Suzanne Brown, the plaintiff, was an FBI agent assigned to the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) within the Critical Incident Response FBI.jpgGroup (CIRG). The BAU handles cases involving threatened violence against public officials, and as a program manager, Brown was responsible for assessing such threats. Katherine Schoeneman, the defendant, is a psychologist who had formerly worked with Brown on some threat assessment cases under a contract with CIRG. Schoeneman offered her psychological observations while Brown provided investigative and law enforcement expertise.

Under Virginia law, the necessary elements of the tort of defamation (which includes both libel and slander) are usually expressed as (1) a publication about the plaintiff, (2) of an actionable statement, (3) with the requisite intent. This sounds simple enough, but proper application of these principles is far more complicated than one would expect. This is, in part, due to the fact that the test is circular, as it begs the question of what an “actionable statement” is. It is more useful to think of Virginia law of defamation as encompassing the following eight elements: (1) a factual assertion (as opposed to an expression of opinion); (2) that is false; (3) and defamatory in nature; (4) that is about the plaintiff; (5) and made to a third party; (6) in a setting or context that isn’t privileged; (7) with the requisite degree of fault; (8) that causes actual or presumed damages (generally consisting of financial loss, loss of standing in the community, and/or emotional distress).

Element (6) refers to a defense, not an element of the plaintiff’s proof, but I’ve included it in the list to clarify that an otherwise defamatory statement made in a privileged setting will not be actionable in a court of law. Furthermore, element (8)–damages–is presumed (and need not be proven) in those situations deemed to constitute “defamation per se.”

Libel and slander will be considered “per se” defamatory if it (1) imputes the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude; (2) imputes that the person is infected with a contagious disease which would exclude the party from society; (3) imputes an unfitness to perform the duties of a job or a lack of integrity in the performance of those duties; or (4) prejudices the party in his or her profession or trade. Statements that might qualify as defamation per se include an allegation that one has acted unprofessionally, an attack on a person’s honesty and veracity, a false report of a corporations’ profit and earnings, a statement regarding a company’s inability to pay bills, and a statement suggesting a person is an incompetent businessman.

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