Articles Posted in Opinion

Statements of pure opinion are protected by the First Amendment and are not actionable as defamation. Whether an alleged defamatory statement is one of fact or opinion is a question of law to be decided by the court, not the jury. It is also for the trial judge (and not the jury) to determine whether a particular statement may support a defamation action. At the same time, however, statements alleged to be defamatory must be evaluated in context, along with all accompanying statements, and cannot be considered in isolation. (See Hyland v. Raytheon Tech. Servs. Co., 277 Va. 40, 48 (2009)). This is all black-letter defamation law, but courts have struggled with the question of how exactly to instruct a jury considering a defamation claim based on a statement that includes both statements of fact and expressions of opinion. Today we have a new opinion offering some guidance. (Full disclosure: my firm was involved in the case).

Handberg v. Goldberg involved a dispute between a Loudoun County resident and The Morgan Center, a provider of educational advocacy services. The Morgan Center (run by Dr. Felicia Goldberg) kept Mr. Handberg’s debit card on file and would seek authorization from him prior to charging it for various services. Billing disagreements arose and Handberg eventually sent an email to his son’s school informing them that Dr. Goldberg no longer represented his son and including various details about the parties’ billing dispute. Dr. Goldberg sued Mr. Handberg for defamation based on this email, identifying 11 specific statements she believed were defamatory. Among those 11 statements were these three:

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The Virginia Supreme Court has had enough of defamation verdicts based on subjective statements that are relative in nature and depend largely on the speaker’s viewpoint. Such statements are statements of opinion, not fact, and cannot support a defamation verdict. A few years ago, the Court made it very clear that “ensuring that defamation suits proceed only upon statements which actually may defame a plaintiff, rather than those which merely may inflame a jury to an award of damages, is an essential gatekeeping function of the court.” (See Webb v. Virginian-Pilot Media Companies). This means that if a plaintiff files an action for libel or slander based solely on a statement of opinion, the trial court’s duty is to dismiss the case at the outset.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen, as illustrated by the recent case of William D. Sroufe v. Muriel Tamera Waldron. Mr. Sroufe is the division superintendent for Patrick County Public Schools. Ms. Waldron is a former principal of Stuart Elementary School in Patrick County. Mr. Sroufe was unhappy with Ms. Waldron’s performance, particularly in connection with her administration of Virginia’s Alternative Assessment Program (“VAAP“) for students with learning disabilities. He decided to ask the school board to reassign her to a teaching position, explaining his reasoning as follows in a letter he gave to her:

You failed to ensure that the [Individualized Education Program] Teams understand the [VAAP] participation criteria and apply them appropriately when considering students with disabilities for the VAAP. Your actions will result in students being required to take [Standards of Learning] assessments who, under a correct interpretation of the criteria, should not have been required to do so.

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The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right to express one’s opinions without fear of defamation lawsuits or other punishment. If you had a bad experience at a local restaurant, you are free to post a negative review on Yelp, Google, or some other consumer-review site and tell the world exactly what you think of the place. The restaurant may not appreciate the effect of your review on its average “star rating,” but it won’t be able to sue you for defamation (not successfully, anyway) if all you did was express your constitutionally-protected opinions. But what are those, exactly?

Distinguishing opinions from statements of fact is not as simple as it sounds, and in many cases, judges and scholars will reach opposite conclusions. For example, a common accusation that gets thrown around a lot is “scam artist” or “scammer.” Is that a factual assertion or an opinion? It’s hard to say without knowing more context. Is the declarant using the term to accuse someone of being “grossly unfair” (an opinion) or is he saying that actual fraud is taking place? Suppose someone writes online that Gatorade’s marketing campaign is a “scam” because Gatorade doesn’t really quench thirst as well as plain water. Contrast that with a statement accusing a local accountant of scamming customers out of hundreds of dollars by manipulating their tax returns. To “scam” someone means different things in different contexts.

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Defamation Law 101 teaches that expressions of opinion are protected by the First Amendment and are not actionable in court. To bring a successful defamation suit, you’ll need to prove that someone made a false statement of fact about you. If that person merely expressed his or her personal opinion, the law of defamation will not provide a remedy, no matter how unfavorable the opinion is or how harshly it was expressed. Distinguishing assertions of fact from expressions of opinion, however, is not always an easy task. Smart lawyers and even judges will frequently disagree with each other on whether a particular statement is “fact” or “opinion”.

In theory, the differences are clear. A statement of fact is one that contains an assertion capable of being proven true or false. Statements of opinion are those that can’t be proven true or false because they depend on the speaker’s personal, subjective viewpoint. A recent Virginia case illustrates the difficulties that come with applying this test to real-world situations.

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As a general proposition, libel and slander liability requires a defamatory statement of fact; expressions of opinion are not actionable. Distinguishing assertions of fact from expressions of opinion, however, is not always an easy task. Factual statements are generally those that contain—expressly or impliedly—a provably false factual connotation. “Mr. Smith drank ten shots of tequila last night” is a statement of fact; either he drank ten shots or he didn’t. Expressions of opinion, on the other hand, are relative in nature and depend largely upon the speaker’s personal viewpoint. They tend to consist of evaluative statements reflecting the speaker’s own political, moral, or aesthetic views. “I think Mr. Smith drinks more tequila than he really should” would likely be deemed an expression of opinion by most courts. But consider the statement “I think Mr. Smith must be an alcoholic.” Fact or opinion?

Statements that appear at first to be opinions but which could fairly be interpreted as implying the existence of facts not disclosed by the speaker are treated by Virginia courts as opinions “laden with factual content,” which is a sufficient predicate upon which to base a defamation action. (See Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Lipscomb, 234 Va. 277, 298 n.8 (1987)). Ultimately, whether a statement of apparent opinion will be deemed sufficiently laden with factual content to support a defamation action will depend on a number of factors that would influence how a reasonable reader or listener would most likely interpret the statement. Considerations include the following:

Has an author deemed it appropriate to include your name in a list of the “Ten Most Dangerous Child Molesters” or the “Top Five Dumbasses of All Time”? According to a recent opinion authored by Judge O’Grady of the Eastern District of Virginia, if you’re claiming defamation based on an Internet “listicle,” chances are you’re going to lose, simply by virtue of the fact that the ubiquitous listicle format is a pretty good sign that what you’re reading is opinion, regardless of the contents of the list.

List-format articles (“listicles”) are everywhere these days. They’re designed to convey ideas in an easy-to-digest format, making them particularly well suited for mobile devices. By their very nature, Judge O’Grady wrote, top-ten lists and other listicles signal to the reader that the content to follow consists of the author’s opinion, rather than provable fact. “These finite lists inherently require authors to exercise opinion and discretion as they choose and rank who or what to include,” the court observed. As such, courts will most likely find statements made therein to be nonactionable opinion, even if they might be construed as statements of fact in other contexts.

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Most Virginia litigators probably associate the Supreme Court’s decisions in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal with an increased pleading burden in federal court, requiring that lawsuits allege “plausible” claims rather than just remote possibilities. In the limited context of pleading defamation claims, however, the plausibility standard applicable in federal court appears to be making it easier to survive preliminary dismissal motions in federal court than in Virginia state court.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Potter v. Associated Press, in which a federal court allowed a defamation claim to go forward despite the absence of facts sufficient to show defamatory meaning, reasoning that it was plausible the claim was valid. Last month, in the latest example of this phenomenon, the Eastern District of Virginia held that unlike in state court, defamation claims can survive even if they do not allege the exact words used. Why? Because all that is needed to survive a motion to dismiss in federal court is a “short and plain” statement of the claim demonstrating a plausible right to relief. A complaint may be plausible on its face even if it fails to set forth the exact words allegedly used by the defendant.

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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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Online review sites wield enormous power, and some enterprising consumers have begun leveraging that power to extract refunds or other benefits from businesses worried about protecting their online reputations. Suppose you’re at an orthodontist’s office being fitted for some $5000 braces when the orthodontist accidentally pierces the inside of your cheek. You decide that (a) the doctor is incompetent and (b) the world should be made aware of that fact for the good of mankind. Your first instinct is to go to Yelp or HealthGrades and write a scathing review warning the public about the dangers of dealing with this orthodontist. But then you realize you might be able to gain even greater satisfaction another way: you contact the doctor, tell him of your plans to write a negative online review, and offer to refrain from posting the review if he will waive the $5000 charge for the braces. You get free braces, and the doctor gets to preserve his 5-star Yelp rating. Win-win, right?

Consumers have a First Amendment right to express their opinions regarding products and services they have received, but things get a little tricky when people threaten to exercise that right as a means to extract money from someone. Some would call this blackmail, known in Virginia as extortion. Extortion is governed by Va. Code § 18.2-59, which provides in pertinent part, “Any person who (i) threatens injury to the character…of another person,…and thereby extorts money, property, or pecuniary benefit or any note, bond, or other evidence of debt from him or any other person, is guilty of a Class 5 felony.”
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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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