Articles Posted in Defamatory Meaning

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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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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The idea of having your genitals and masculinity mocked by your doctor while laying unconscious on an operating room table is unappealing to say the least. But is it worth half a million dollars? As first reported by Washington Post reporter Tom Jackman, a Fairfax County man identified in court papers as “D.B.” inadvertently recorded his entire colonoscopy, and was later shocked to discover he had been ridiculed and insulted shortly after drifting off to sleep. He won a $500,000 verdict in his lawsuit against the anesthesiologist, Tiffany Ingham, and her practice, including $100,000 for defamation (you know, that tort that’s supposed to be about preventing and redressing attacks on one’s reputation). In my view, no defamation damages should have been awarded in this case, but it’s hard to imagine the case coming out any other way with the current limitations of the Virginia Model Jury Instructions.

Because D.B. recorded the procedure on his smartphone, the case presents a rare opportunity to listen to the actual words claimed to be defamatory as they were spoken. An excerpt of the recording is embedded below. One interesting question is whether the recording was properly admitted into evidence, as the recording would be considered illegal unless D.B. was a “party to the communication” (see Va. Code § 19.2-62(B)(2)), and D.B., though present and the subject of the discussion, was unconscious. But I digress. Listen to the recording and ask yourself: when Dr. Ingham remarks to her colleagues in the operating room that D.B. may have “tuberculosis in the penis” or syphilis, is she joking around, or asserting literally that D.B. actually had these conditions?
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To successfully maintain an action for libel or slander, a plaintiff’s complaint must allege facts that support each element of the tort. Failure to plead the required elements will lead to an early dismissal, and failure to prove the required elements at trial will result in losing the case. Trying to figure out exactly what those elements are, however, has never been easy in Virginia. Supposedly, the test for a valid defamation claim includes only three elements: (1) publication of (2) an actionable statement with (3) the requisite intent. The problem with applying this seemingly simply test is that element (2) is so complicated that it should really be broken down into several elements of its own. I attempted to do that with this blog post I wrote back in 2013, and I encouraged the Virginia Supreme Court to adopt a more useful seven-element test for defamation the last time I appeared before it, but my suggestion has not caught on with the justices. On June 4, 2015, the court decided Schaecher v. Bouffault, the new definitive case outlining the elements of defamation in Virginia.

Although the court still enumerates only three elements, we now have additional guidance on what it means to allege and prove an “actionable statement.” The two big takeaways from the case are (1) Virginia now follows Fourth Circuit precedent on the definition and scope of defamatory “sting”, and (2) it can be defamatory to call someone a “liar,” but whether such a statement will be actionable will depend on the circumstances surrounding the statement and the context in which it was made, as those considerations will govern whether the statement would be interpreted as a statement of fact (actionable) or opinion (not actionable). The gravity of the lie itself will also be relevant to the determination, as the lie must cause reputation to be adversely affected to a sufficient magnitude before it will be deemed defamatory.
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Criminal defense attorney Larry L. Archie received a good bit of publicity recently over his slogan, “Just Because You Did It Doesn’t Mean You’re Guilty,” as shown below on a North Carolina billboard. Yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a ruling that stands for a similarly counterintuitive proposition: despite the widespread notion that “truth is a complete defense” to defamation claims, you can’t always escape liability for slander even if everything you said was literally true. Even where the words, when read out of context, are literally true and defamatory meaning is not immediately apparent, Virginia law permits a plaintiff to maintain an action for defamation where innuendo would lead a reasonable reader to infer a defamatory meaning.

The case of Pendleton v. Newsome involves the heartbreaking story of a seven-year-old child with a severe peanut allergy who ingested a peanut at school and died. According to the allegations in the complaint, the child’s mother, Laura Mary-Beth Pendleton (the plaintiff) had informed the school staff earlier in the school year about her daughter’s severe allergy to peanuts, that she provided the school with specific instructions, signed by the child’s pediatrician, about how to treat her daughter in the event of an emergency, and that she brought in an “EpiPen Jr.” for the school to keep on hand to inject Epinephrine if needed. She alleges she was told by the school’s clinic assistant that they already had all the equipment they needed and didn’t need the EpiPen.
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California lawyer Tamara Green has accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. Bill Cosby, speaking through his publicist, characterized the accusation as “discredited” and as amounting to “nothing.” First question: is Cosby calling Green a liar? Second question: is it defamatory to call someone a liar if they’re actually telling the truth? Third question: is a celebrity personally liable for defamatory statements made by that person’s attorney or publicist? Ms. Green believes the answers to all three questions are YES, judging by the fact that she sued Mr. Cosby for defamation a few days ago in Massachusetts federal court. Personally, I’m not so sure.

Let’s begin at the beginning: what did Cosby actually say? In defamation actions, it is important to know the exact words used, lest liability be based on embellishments or mischaracterizations of those words by the plaintiff’s attorney. First of all, it wasn’t Cosby himself who responded to Ms. Green’s allegations. Her lawsuit is based on statements made by his attorney and publicist. Back in 2005, when Ms. Green first went public with her accusations in an appearance on the Today Show (video below), Mr. Cosby’s lawyer at the time, Walter M. Phillips, Jr., allegedly issued a statement calling the accusations “absolutely false” and saying that the alleged assault “did not happen in any way, shape, or form.”

Years later, in a Newsweek interview published in February 2014, Cosby’s publicist (claimed to be David Brokaw) gave Newsweek this statement: “This is a 10-year-old, discredited accusation that proved to be nothing at the time, and is still nothing.” As if to demonstrate the reason we have a requirement here in Virginia to plead the actual words used, Ms. Green does not include this quotation in her complaint. Instead, she characterizes the statement as follows: “in an effort to continue the public branding of Plaintiff as a liar, Defendant Cosby through Brokaw 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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So you may have heard that environmental scientist Paul Brodeur is seeking $1 million in damages for libel, defamation, slander and false light against the movie studios behind 2013’s highly acclaimed film American Hustle. Why? Because according to him, the movie damaged his reputation by “attributing…a scientifically unsupportable statement” to him. Had this action been filed in Virginia rather than California, it would not likely go very far.

Here’s the scene: it’s the late 1970s or early 1980s, and the two characters played by Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence are arguing about the new microwave oven that just exploded in their kitchen:

Irving Rosenfeld: I told you not to put metal in the science oven! What did you do that for?

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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Defamation claims arise frequently in employment settings. Employees often disagree with their performance reviews and, if they feel particularly aggrieved, resort to the courts to extract a modicum of revenge. Unfortunately for them, statements relating to employee discipline and termination made by managers and supervisors usually enjoy a qualified privilege against defamation claims. The privilege generally insulates such statements from liability absent clear and convincing evidence of malice or some other indicator that the privilege has been abused. When an employer makes a false and defamatory statement about an employee, but that statement is protected by a qualified privilege that has not been lost or abused, the statement is not actionable.

Of course, before the question of privilege even comes into play, there is the matter of whether the statement at issue is defamatory in the first place. In Regina M. Zarrelli v. City of Norfolk, Ms. Zarrelli sued the City of Norfolk, Virginia (her former employer) along with the City’s Commonwealth’s Attorney, Gregory D. Underwood, based in part on being required to apologize to a vendor. It didn’t work, and the case was dismissed both because the statements were not defamatory, and because even if they were, they were protected by qualified privilege.
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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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