Articles Posted in Malice

When a public figure alleges defamation, he must demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the speaker made the defamatory statement with actual malice. Judge Henry E. Hudson of the Eastern District of Virginia confirmed this heightened standard when he dismissed the complaint brought by Wayne Besen, the Executive Director of Truth Wins Out (“TWO”), a non-profit organization that addresses anti-gay behavior.

Besen filed a claim for defamation per se against the non-profit organization Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, Inc. (“PFOX”) and Gregory Quinlan, the President and CEO of the organization, after Quinlan made comments about Besen on local television and the organization’s blog. Specifically, Quinlan asserted that Besen once stated that someone should run Quinlan over with a bus or inject him with AIDS. On the PFOX blog, Quinlan also suggested that Besen had been fired from the Human Rights Campaign. Quinlan refused to retract either statement, even after Besen approached him about the comments.

Under Virginia law, defamation per se can be found where there are “words that impute to a person the commission of a crime of moral turpitude or which prejudice a person in his profession or trade.” If the plaintiff is a public figure, he must prove that the defendant published a false and defamatory statement with actual malice, meaning that it was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth. Plaintiffs can be public figures for all purposes and in all contexts, or may be “limited public figures” with respect only to a limited range of issues.

Workplace defamation suits can result in high damages awards. A former pilot and federal flight deck officer (FFDO), William Hoeper, successfully sued his former employer, Air Wisconsin, for defamation after one of its managers, Patrick Doyle, reported Hoeper to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as a potential threat to airline security. Last month, the Supreme Court of Colorado, applying Virginia law, upheld a $1.4 million jury verdict against Air Wisconsin.

Hoeper had been taking a test to fly a new plane. According to test administrators, Hoeper ended the test abruptly, raised his voice at the administrator, and used profanity. Afterwards, while Hoeper was waiting for his flight home, Doyle called TSA to report that Hoeper may be carrying his government-issued FFDO firearm and that he was concerned about Hoeper’s mental stability because Hoeper had been terminated that day.

When a plaintiff alleges defamation involving a “matter of public concern,” the defendant is entitled to First Amendment free speech protection unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the statement was false and made with actual malice. Actual malice is present if the statement was made by the defendant with (1) knowledge of the statement’s falsity or (2) reckless disregard as to the AW plane.jpgstatement’s falsity. However, even before the plaintiff presents his case, an airline defendant may be able to avoid liability altogether under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), which provides immunity from civil suits to “an air carrier who voluntarily discloses any suspicious transaction relevant to certain aircraft security statutes.” If the disclosures are made with actual knowledge or reckless disregard as to the statement’s falsity, however, ATSA immunity is lost and the plaintiff can proceed to demonstrating that a statement was defamatory.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is poised to rule on the appeal of NASCAR driver Jeremy Allen Mayfield, who is appealing the dismissal of his case involving claims of defamation, breach of contract, and deceptive trade practices. The trial court had dismissed the case based in large part on contractual release and indemnification provisions, including a release of liability arising from the publication of the results of any substance-abuse test.

Mayfield entered into a written contract with NASCAR in which he agreed to submit to random drug testing. On May 1, 2009, NASCAR asked Mayfield to submit to such a test. He complied and informed David Black, the president of Aegis, the chemical company performing the test, that he had taken Claritin and Adderall just prior to submitting a sample for testing. On May 7, 2009, Mayfield was informed that his test came back positive for amphetamines. After some confusion about the number of samples and whether Aegis tested the correct sample, NASCAR informed Mayfield that he was suspended as a driver and as the owner of a team. The president of NASCAR, Brian France, then held a press conference announcing to the world that Mayfield had been suspended for taking either performance-enhancing or recreational drugs.

After the press conference, Black informed reporters that the positive test result had nothing to do with any over-the-counter medication. As a result of these public statements, Mayfield and his corporate NASCAR team filed suit against NASCAR, NASCAR.jpgFrance, Aegis, and Black, claiming that they were responsible for publicly defaming him. Mayfield argued in the suit that the statements were “intentional, malicious, reckless and false.”

Last summer, United States Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign after conservative activist Andrew Breitbart posted online a speech that she had made 23 years before, when she worked for a nonprofit organization. The video that Breitbart posted supposedly showed that Sherrod, who is African American, had engaged in racial discrimination against a white farmer who needed financial assistance. It soon emerged, however, that the video clip that Breitbart placed online was significantly edited, and that in full context, Sherrod emerged as a supporter of equal opportunity rather than as a racist. After all that background was revealed, President Obama took the unusual step of formally and publicly apologizing to her. She was offered her job back, but she declined the offer. Instead, she hired a team of preeminent defamation attorneys to take Mr. Breitbart to court.

On February 11, 2011, Sherrod filed a defamation suit in D.C. Superior Court against Breitbart and two alleged accomplices, alleging that the depiction of her as a racist had caused her financial losses, physical symptoms, and “irreparable reputation and career damage.” Sherrod is seeking compensatory and punitive damages as well as a court order that Breitbart remove the offending material from his blog. Breitbart has not yet formally responded to the lawsuit, but he did say in a statement that he “categorically rejects the transparent effort to chill his constitutionally protected free speech.”

Defamation suits against public figures are never easy. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court for several decades to give a very wide berth to people who criticize public officials or discuss matters of public concern. In general, celebrities or other Sherrod.jpgpublic figures who sue for defamation cannot win unless they can show that the defendant made the offending statement with “actual malice,” which essentially amounts to knowledge that the defamatory statements were false, or reckless disregard for their truth or falsity.

It doesn’t take a defamation expert to see the flaws in the $2 million libel lawsuit filed this week by Redskins owner Dan Snyder against the Washington City Paper. Mr. Snyder took offense at an article titled, “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder: From A to Z (for Zorn), an Encyclopedia of the Owner’s Many Failings,” which contains a detailed list of reasons the author considered him a bad owner. Mr. Snyder also disapproved of an image of him, published with the article in question, on which someone had doodled devil horns and a mustache, which Mr. Snyder deemed “an anti-Semitic caricature of himself” which “forced” him to file the lawsuit. Talk about thin skin.

First of all, how ironic is it that Mr. Snyder claims he was forced to bring this lawsuit to protect his reputation and good name, and yet by virtue of suing the newspaper, he has stoked the interest of the media and triggered widespread public scrutiny into his prior activities, vastly increasing the number of people who will seek out and read The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder? Personally, I’m not a regular reader of the Washington City Paper and would never have known about the alleged defamatory statements had Mr. Snyder not called my attention to them by suing the paper. Mr. Snyder and his lawyers have alerted the otherwise complacent populace to a long list of alleged bad acts by the Redskins owner. Even if he wins the case, will he really have done himself and his reputation any favors by suing an outspoken critic?

But he won’t win. As I explained in an earlier blog post, not just any hurtful or offensive comment will constitute libel or slander upon which a plaintiff could DevilDoodle.jpgsuccessfully sue for millions of dollars. Defamation liability requires the publication of a false factual statement that concerns and harms the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s reputation. Statements of opinion, regardless of how unfavorable the opinion, are not actionable. Thus, calling Mr. Snyder a failure, likening him to the devil, and referring to the “stain” he supposedly left on the Redskins are all constitutionally protected as free speech.

Getting fired or laid off is hard enough without your boss trashing your reputation to your co-workers. I receive many calls from prospective clients interested in pursuing their former employer for defamation. Virginia employers, however, have a lot of leeway in what they can say about an employee being considered for termination before they will be liable for slander or libel. Virginia recognizes a qualified privilege against defamation claims where statements by an employer are made in connection with discharging that employee. To overcome that privilege, a plaintiff must prove common law malice by clear and convincing evidence.

Consider the recent Hanover County case of Koegler v. Green, decided on September 1, 2009. Carl Koegler sued his former employer, the Richmond-East Moose Lodge, as well as several of his former co-workers and employers, for defamation. The defendants demurred (i.e., moved to dismiss the case), citing the qualified privilege, and the court agreed with them and dismissed the case. The court emphasized that defamation claims against employers in Virginia will not be permitted to go forward absent strong evidence of malice.

The facts, according to the allegations in the complaint, were as follows: Mr. Koegler was employed by the Lodge in various positions over the years. An audit conducted by the international parent company resulted in Mr. Koegler’s termination in 2008. Some of Walkaway.jpghis former coworkers and managers talked to other employees about the firing. The acting Governor of the Lodge, for example, held a staff meeting and discussed what had been said in board meetings about Mr. Koegler and that Mr. Koegler had been suspended for stealing money. Another officer of the Lodge sent emails describing Mr Koegler as having “questionable character.” Mr. Koegler sued for defamation and harm to his reputation.

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