Articles Posted in Libel

Well-known climate scientist Michael Mann made good on his threat to sue the National Review and columnist Mark Steyn for defamation based on statements made online questioning Mann’s global warming research. In response, the defendants filed a special motion to dismiss under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP statute, arguing that the online statements were made in furtherance of the right of advocacy on an issue of public interest. The court found that the anti-SLAPP statute did apply but nevertheless denied the motion.

Mann is a professor of meteorology and the Director of the Early System Science Center at Penn State. He is well known for his research on global warming and has published papers and books on the subject. The University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) exchanged emails with Mann which were later misappropriated. In one email, a CRU scientist referred to Mann’s “nature trick” of adding in real temperatures for the last twenty years and from 1961 to “hide the decline.” Upon discovery of the emails, the University of East Anglia investigated the matter and concluded that the honesty and rigor of the CRU scientists was not in doubt but that the email referencing Mann’s “nature trick” was misleading.

In 2010, Penn State initiated an investigation of Mann and the CRU emails. The investigatory committee was comprised entirely of Penn State faculty members. Based on an interview with Mann, the committee cleared Mann of three of four charges against him. The last charge involved an allegation that Mann’s research might deviate Mann.jpgfrom accepted norms. The committee interviewed an MIT professor who was critical of Mann’s work and later expressed dismay with the scope of the investigation and the committee’s analysis of the CRU emails.

Edward Bukstel, CEO and majority shareholder of VitaminSpice, Inc., a publicly traded company, has brought a libel action in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against DealFlow Media and affiliated individuals, claiming that DealFlow knowingly published a false story about VitaminSpice. The complaint alleges the following facts.

DealFlow provides independent research services and analysis for finance professionals such as investment managers, law firms, banks, public and private corporations, hedge funds, and financial companies. It publishes The DealFlow Report for individuals and institutions in the field of business and finance. DealFlow’s website asserts that over 6000 institutions rely on it for accurate, comprehensive and timely information about finance.

In early 2013, Bukstel negotiated a deal allegedly worth over $8 million involving the sale of VitaminSpice assets to a New York investor. An article appeared in a March issue of The DealFlow Report, entitled “VitaminSpice CEO Says He Requested Trading Halt Amid Dispute Over Stock Manipulation.” The Article went on to report that Bukstel had accused his former attorney of stock manipulation. According to Bukstel, the Article, its title in bold, news.jpgappeared on page one of the issue and was the major headline. Bukstel asserts that the defendants intended the article to be conspicuous so that every reader would be drawn to it.

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.

First, don’t hire a lawyer. (What do lawyers know about defamation law, anyway?) Second, refuse to comply with the court’s orders and local rules. Finally, file a whole bunch of frivolous and nonsensical motions, such as a “Motion for Declaration All Rulings & Judgments Be Rendered Null & Void,” a motion against opposing counsel for engaging in “felonious conspirator tactics,” and a “Motion to Declare All Your Base Are Belong to Us.” With the exception of the “all your base” example, a defendant recently tried all of these tactics in North Carolina federal court and came away with a judgment against him that included punitive damages.

William Mann, a member of the Professional Golfers Association Hall of Fame, acquired a North Carolina country club but then declared bankruptcy and moved to South Carolina. M. Dale Swiggett sent a letter to hundreds of recipients accusing Mann of fraud and crimes and claiming Mann left North Carolina after declaring bankruptcy and paid cash for his South Carolina house. Swiggett then sent a letter to the judge who had presided over Mann’s bankruptcy, accusing Mann of covering up “sludge spreading and spills.”

Mann sued Swiggett in the Eastern District of North Carolina for libel, seeking $2 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages for injury to his reputation and livelihood. Swiggett, acting pro se, responded by overloading the court’s docket with numerous groundless motions, inducing the court to strike his Answer as a sanction. After entering summary judgment in Mann’s favor, the only remaining issue was the amount of damages.

On October 4, 2012, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected the appeal of a personal trainer, represented by Virginia Beach lawyer Jeremiah A. Denton III, and allowed to stand the summary judgment order entered by the Norfolk Circuit Court against the trainer on her defamation claim. This shows just how serious the Virginia Supreme Court is about the absolute privilege that extends to defamatory statements made in demand letters preliminary to contemplated litigation and sent in good faith. Summary judgment is appropriate if a defamation claim is based on a privileged statement.

Darryl and Julie Cummings were members of the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club (“NYCC”). Deborah Allison, a personal trainer at NYCC and at Norfolk Academy, pursued and entered into a physical relationship with Julie. Darryl reported Addison’s actions to NYCC management. Though the NYCC warned her not to pursue Julie Cummings on NYCC property, Addison disobeyed and was fired. Cummings and his wife ultimately divorced.

Darryl sued Addison for intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference, and professional malpractice. Addison counterclaimed for intentional infliction of emotional distress, tortious interference with norfolk.JPGcontract, tortious interference with a contract expectancy, and defamation. Addison’s claims stemmed from Cummings’ email to the NYCC president, a draft complaint he sent to NYCC’s attorney, and emails he sent to Norfolk Academy’s headmaster.

Libel and slander claims depend to a large extent on whom the plaintiff targeted with the allegedly defamatory statement. Defamatory words may not support a cause of action unless they directly or inferentially refer to the plaintiff–this has come to be known as the “of and concerning” test. The defamation case filed against former Governor Eliot Spitzer and Slate Magazine Slate for a column Mr. Spitzer wrote in 2010 about an insurance bid-rigging scandal was recently dismissed by a New York court on the ground that the article did not sufficiently identify the plaintiff–a former insurance executive at Marsh & McLennan–as the subject of the statements.

William Gilman’s work for Marsh included negotiating “contingent commissions”–fees paid by insurers to insurance brokers who place insurance business with the insurer. As attorney general, Spitzer took the position that Marsh’s use of such commissions was illegal. A lawsuit ensued and Gilman was convicted of one count of restraint of trade and competition. While Gilman’s appeal was pending, the trial judge vacated his conviction because exculpatory evidence had not been disclosed during trial. Spitzer wrote an article published on Slate.com in response to a Wall Street Journal article criticizing his handling of the Marsh case. Gilman brought a claim for defamation against Spitzer and Slate based on statements in Spitzer’s article.

Gilman’s defamation claim was based on (1) a reference to “the many employees of Marsh who have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms” and (2) the statement that Marsh’s employees “pocketed … increased fees and kickbacks.” Defendants argued that neither of the challenged statements was “of and concerning” Gilman and therefore could not be defamatory.

A jury awarded Russell Ebersole $7,500 in compensatory damages and $60,000 in punitive damages on his libel claim against Bridget Kline-Perry in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Ms. Kline-Perry moved for a new trial or, alternatively, a reduction of the punitive damages award, which the court treated as a motion for remittitur. Finding $60,000 to be unconstitutionally excessive, the court remitted the punitive damages to $15,000 and gave Mr. Ebersole the option of accepting the reduced amount or requesting a new trial.

The court agreed with Ms. Kline-Perry that the $60,000 award of punitive damages violated her right to due process. When faced with an excessive verdict, courts will generally order a remittitur. Remittitur is a process by which the court reduces the damages award while giving the plaintiff the option of re-trying the case in lieu of accepting the reduction. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not provide specifically for remittitur, but precedent holds that a court should order remittitur when a jury award is so excessive as to result in a miscarriage of justice.

In determining whether a jury award of punitive damages violates due process, courts consider (1) the degree of reprehensibility of the defendant’s misconduct; (2) the disparity between the actual or potential harm suffered by cut-money.jpgthe plaintiff and the punitive damages award; and (3) the difference between the punitive damages awarded and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.

Kenneth M. Seaton, sole proprietor of the Grant Resort Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, brought a defamation action against TripAdvisor after the hotel was identified by the travel site as the dirtiest hotel in America. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, however, found that TripAdvisor’s list of “2011 Dirtiest Hotels” could not support a defamation claim and dismissed the case on August 22, 2012.

TripAdvisor relies solely on customer reviews to compile its “Dirtiest Hotels” list – it does not conduct an independent investigation of each hotel. Seaton claimed that TripAdvisor attempted to assure the public that its list is factual, reliable and trustworthy by including the following statements along with its list: (1) “World’s Most Trusted Travel Advice”; (2) “TripAdvisor lifts the lid on America’s Dirtiest Hotels”; (3) “Top 10 U.S. Crime-Scenes Revealed, According to Traveler Cleanliness Ratings”; (4) “Now, in its sixth year, and true to its promise to share the whole truth about hotels to help travelers plan their trips, TripAdvisor names and shames the nation’s most hair-raising hotels”; (5) “This year, the tarnished title of America’s dirtiest hotel goes to Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.” The list quoted a TripAdvisor user: “There was dirt at least ½ inch thick in the bathtub which was filled with lots of dark hair.” The list also featured a photograph of a ripped bedspread.

Defamation claims require proof of false statements or false implications. Seaton contended that by publishing its “2011 Dirtiest Hotels” list, TripAdvisor was implying that the Grand Resort Hotel and Convention Center was, in fact, the dirtiest hotel in the United States and that a reasonable person reading the list would consider this supposed fact in making their travel plans. Seaton argued that the list was not mere hyperbole because it dirtyhotels.jpgcontained actual numerical rankings with comments suggesting that the rankings were based in actual fact.

A court’s role is to act as a “gatekeeper” where evidence is concerned, and under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, a court should exclude expert testimony that is not reliable and helpful to the jury. Rule 702 provides that an expert’s opinion is reliable if (1) it is based upon sufficient facts; (2) it is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia recently applied this three prong test and granted a defendant’s motion to exclude expert testimony in a defamation case.

In Parsi v. Daioleslam, Dr. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and NIAC filed a defamation action against Seid Hassan Daioleslam alleging that Daioleslam published numerous false and defamatory statements on internet websites characterizing plaintiffs as members of a subversive and illegal Iranian lobby. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant’s statements injured their reputations, hampered NIAC’s effectiveness as an advocacy group, and damaged their fundraising efforts. In support of their claims, plaintiffs proffered two experts. Plaintiffs hoped that the testimony of Debashis Aikat, a journalism professor, would establish that defendant’s writings did not meet the standard of care for journalists. Plaintiffs submitted the testimony of Joel Morse, a financial economist, to establish plaintiff’s economic damages suffered as a result of the alleged defamation. Defendant moved to exclude both men’s testimony, arguing that neither expert’s testimony met the standards of admissibility.

The court found all three reliability prongs of Rule 702 lacking in Aikat’s testimony. First, the “sufficient facts” Aikat relied on were defendant’s articles and sources cited therein. Because Aikat read only a haphazard selection of defendant’s sources and no background material, the court found the “facts and data” Aikat relied on to be teacher.jpginsufficient. Second, the court found Aikat’s testimony was not the product of reliable principles and methods. Aikat refused to give any description of his methodology beyond reading and viewing. The court noted that Aikat’s methodology could have been to compare defendant’s performance to applicable professional standards, which would have been an acceptable methodology.

Indiana lawyer Mark K. Phillips has filed a libel and slander action against two media outlets, Nexstar Broadcasting Group and Mission Broadcasting, for mistakenly identifying him as a child molester. In 2011, Mark S. Birge, Phillips’ client, pleaded guilty to child molestation in an Indiana court. When the local news companies reported this story during the next two days, they mistakenly announced instead that Birge’s attorney, Mark Phillips, had been convicted of child molestation and would be sentenced to up to 16 years in prison. The media companies published a correction to the story over a month later, but Phillips filed suit anyway for slander per se, libel per se, and defamation. He seeks more than $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

Likely issues will include whether the lawyer is a “public figure” required to prove malice, the extent to which the media outlets are at fault for the mistaken report, and the legal effect of the subsequent correction.

Phillips asserts that the defendants are liable for defamation because they falsely identified him as the child molester knowing the statements to be false. As a result, he claims he “has suffered ridicule, damage to his TV.jpgprofessional and personal reputation within the community and the tri-state area, emotional and physical pain, disgrace, and stress within his marriage and with his family, embarrassment, and loss of opportunity to achieve his potential as a professional.” Phillips suggests that the severity of the impact of these stories on him is a result of the fact that he is an active member of the community. He has coached a Special Olympics basketball team for over 18 years, is a member of multiple legal professional groups and country clubs, and maintains an active legal practice in multiple states.

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