Articles Posted in Opinion

To be actionable as libel, a statement must reasonably imply false and defamatory facts when read in context. Context is important because the setting of the speech makes its nature apparent and helps determine how its intended audience would have interpreted the statement. In some cases, a literally false statement will not be actionable because contextual factors demonstrate that the true meaning of the statement is something other than what the words alone might suggest. In other words, the statement that a plaintiff must prove false to prevail in a defamation case is not necessarily the literal phrase published but rather what a reasonable reader would have understood the author to have said. In Farah v. Esquire Magazine, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit discussed the importance of these principles in a case involving political satire.

Jerome Corsi is the popular author of several New York Times bestsellers and the book “Where’s the Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is Not Eligible to be President” published by WND Books. Joseph Farah is the Editor and CEO of WND’s parent company, WorldNetDaily.com, a competitor of Esquire Magazine. On the day after “Where’s the Birth Certificate” was released, Esquire published an online article on “The Politics Blog” entitled “BREAKING: Jerome Corsi’s Birther Book Pulled from Shelves!” A copy of the Drudge Siren, a symbol of sensationalistic news, appeared above an image of the book’s cover. The article claimed that Farah had announced plans to recall and “pulp” the entire first run of the book and to refund purchaser’s money because three weeks earlier, Obama had produced his long form birth certificate indicating he was born in Hawaii. Later, Esquire published an update clarifying that the article was satirical, but the writer of the article referred to Corsi as an “execrable piece of shit” in an interview published on another online publication, The Daily Caller.

Farah and Corsi sued for defamation and other torts. According to the complaint, after the article was published, Farah received numerous requests for confirmation of the story and comment, and consumers began requesting refunds. The plaintiffs also claimed that they were attacked by book supporters and that book stores pulled the book from their shelves or refused to sell it. Farah and Corsi contended that Esquire only published the update after Farah indicated that he was exploring legal options and that the update was likewise false and defamatory. The district court granted Esquire’s motions to dismiss under both Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and D.C.’s Anti-SLAPP Act, D.C. Code § 16-5501 et seq.

To survive demurrer, claims for defamation must set forth the exact language of the alleged statements claimed to be defamatory. Some Virginia judges (like Judge Charles E. Poston of Norfolk) refer to this requirement as a “heightened pleading” standard, but care should be taken not to confuse this terminology with the heightened pleading standard for fraud claims, which generally requires that fraud allegations identify the time, place, content, and maker of each alleged fraudulent statement. No such particularity is required for defamation claims in Virginia.

Judge Poston recently sustained a demurrer to a defamation claim that failed to allege the specific words spoken. In Owens v. DRS Automotive Fantomworks, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Owens tasked DRS and Daniel Short with converting their 1960 Thunderbird into a 1960 Thunderbird Police Interceptor. The Owens paid DRS two deposits of $15,000 each which DRS used for restorations, repair work and part expenditures including the purchase of a Police Interceptor from Alexander Thiess. When the defendants refused to give the Owens documentation of the expenditures, the Owens asked DRS to return the vehicle. DRS demanded that the Owens pay an additional $3,313. The Owens refused and sued DRS. DRS filed a counterclaim alleging that the Owens defamed it in statements made to Mr. Theiss and his superiors. The Owens demurred to the defamation counterclaim, arguing that it failed to allege sufficient facts.

The allegedly defamatory statements were that the Owens described Mr. Short’s business practices as illegal, criminal, shady and not on the up-and-up; asserted that Mr. Short and DRS were under criminal and civil investigation and that they likely stole the Police Interceptor; claimed Mr. Short was a “liar” regarding the history of Tbird.jpgthe Police Interceptor, and that he deceived and overcharged the Owens for the Interceptor. The counterclaim, however, contained only two verbatim quotes: that the Owens called Mr. Short a “liar” and that DRS sold vehicles with “open-titles.” The court found the vague allegations insufficient.

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.

Travel agent John Mathews may have a meritorious claim against a Virginia hotel for breaching a contract to provide food for a large group of tourists. It’s hard to tell, though, when he clutters his complaint with counts for defamation, invasion of privacy, tortious interference, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and fails to include a count for breach of contract. This latest complaint represents Mr. Mathews’ fourth attempt to present his case to a federal court in Pennsylvania. Had he opted to file a simple breach-of-contract action in Virginia’s general district court instead, he might have secured a judgment by now.

The allegations go as follows. Mr. Mathews booked a “Winter Get Away Tour” with the Westin hotel at Washington Dulles in 2012. He alleges he planned the event with the hotel sales manager and estimated there would be 150 guests with the tour. He claims he emphasized that this was only an estimate and he would furnish a final number later.

When 174 people signed up for the getaway (or rather, the “get away”), the hotel was not able to feed everyone, as the head chef apparently wasn’t notified of the final number. On both Saturday and Sunday nights, some guests went without meals and an unlimited, all-you-can-eat buffet was converted to a limited, one-serving one. Mathews had advertised the tour to include two buffet dinners and two buffet breakfasts and claims he had to reimburse many guests due to the missed or reduced meals.

An essential requirement of any defamation action is that the alleged statement convey factual assertions. Pure expressions of opinion (i.e., those that neither state directly nor imply any assertion of objective fact) are protected by both the First Amendment and Section 12 of the Virginia Constitution. Whether a particular statement should be classified as fact or opinion is a threshold issue for the court to decide. Consequently, many libel and slander cases are dismissed at the outset and never reach a jury.

There’s not always a bright line between the two, and sometimes courts get it wrong. Yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed the decision of a Halifax County court to dismiss a defamation action on the ground the statement constituted opinion and not fact. The statement at issue was this: “Tharpe told me that Tharpe was going to screw the Authority like he did Fort Pickett.”

It’s certainly tempting to treat a statement like this as opinion, because whether or not someone got “screwed” is subject to differing viewpoints. But look closely. The speaker is not making the claim that Tharpe screwed the Authority or screwed Fort Pickett. What he is saying is that Tharpe TOLD him these things. Tharpe’s position in quotes.jpgthe trial court was that he never made such a statement. So the issue wasn’t whether or not getting “screwed” is a matter of fact or opinion, but whether it was a factual assertion to claim that Tharpe made this particular statement. The Virginia Supreme Court held that it was “indisputably capable of being proven true or false.”

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.

Judge Jane Marum Roush of the Fairfax Circuit Court has allowed Dr. Adel Kebaish to amend his complaint against Inova Fairfax Hospital to include four additional statements claimed to be defamatory. Judge Roush had previously found the alleged statements non-actionable but was persuaded by the plaintiff’s attorneys to partially reconsider her earlier ruling.

Dr. Kebaish was an orthopedic and spine trauma surgeon at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Dr. Kebaish claims that Inova and several of its doctors and physician assistants defamed him and that Inova terminated him for objecting to substandard care and fraudulent billing practices. He filed a complaint against Inova, one of its administrators and ten of its doctors and physician assistants alleging causes of action for defamation per se as well as other business torts. The defendants demurred on various grounds.

The court reviewed each of the allegedly defamatory statements in the complaint and agreed with Inova that most of the statements were either statements of opinion, not actionable as defamation, or made by persons who were not named as defendants. To successfully state a claim for defamation in Virginia, a plaintiff must show that the ER.jpgdefendant published a false factual statement that harms the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s reputation. Expressions of opinion are constitutionally protected and are not actionable as defamation.

Fairfax-based Direct Connect, LLC, a credit card processing company, has sued Inkthis, LLC, and its owner, Debra Sachs, for alleged defamation and tortious interference with contract. Direct Connect is upset about certain statements posted on Inkthis’ Facebook wall, including one that referred to Direct Connect as “a bunch of thieves.” The defendants recently removed the case from Fairfax Circuit Court to federal court in Alexandria.

The Facebook posts describe the author’s frustration with certain business practices of Direct Connect, including what the author believed to be excessive charges debited from Inkthis’ bank accounts. Direct Connect says the statements are false, that the defendants knew the statements were false when they made them and, by publishing descriptions of the company that included words like “inept,” “horrible,” and “thieves,” the statements harmed Direct Connect’s reputation.

Statements that are relative in nature and depend largely upon the speaker’s viewpoint are generally considered expressions of opinion. Opinions cannot form the basis of a defamation action as they are protected by the First Amendment and generally cannot be interpreted as stating a provably false fact, a prerequisite for any thief.jpgdefamation claim. Thus, referring to Direct Connect as “inept” and “horrible” will likely be deemed non-actionable opinion. Referring to the company as “a bunch of thieves” presents a closer question.

Employment reviews often lead to libel allegations due to the fact they often contain harmful statements perceived by the employee to be false and defamatory. In most cases, however, even if the performance review contains a false statement, no defamation claim will lie because (1) statements of opinion are not actionable under Virginia law (or the United States Constitution); and (2) communications between people on a subject in which they both have an “interest or duty” are deemed privileged.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently considered–and rejected–the defamation claims of Claudine Nigro, a former medical resident at the Shenandoah Valley Family Residency Program. After a semiannual performance review in 2009, Nigro was notified that she would not be renewed for another year of residency with the program. measuring_tape.jpg Nigro appealed this decision, but then resigned a few months later. She brought an action against the residency program’s director and the hospital itself, claiming that she was defamed during the appeals process by the director of the program, who discussed her perceived shortcomings with the faculty appeals committee, and by employees of the hospital, who reported Nigro for allegedly recording her conversations with physicians.

Nigro alleged the Program Director defamed her with statements he made in various meetings and notices, including “There has been no evidence of improvement or intention to improve in weak areas,” “There is no change in apathetic/disinterested approach or demonstrated interest in learning despite 3-4 months of discussion and coaching,” and “There is faculty consensus that [Nigro] may be suffering from depression or poor career choice.” The court found that all the alleged statements were either opinion, factually true, not defamatory, or were protected by the qualified privilege applicable to statements made to another with a corresponding interest or duty.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia has found that negative comments a customer service representative made to a customer may form the basis of a defamation action.

Charles and Donna Bates operate a school photography business. They entered a contract with Strawbridge Studios, Inc., also a school photography business, under which Strawbridge purchased the Bates’ accounts and employed them to handle certain accounts. The relationship deteriorated and ended in the Bates filing a breach of contract action again Strawbridge. The parties resolved their dispute and entered a settlement agreement which included a non-disparagement clause providing that neither party would “say, write, publish, broadcast, or in any other way participate in negative or disparaging comments about the other.”

Later, when a customer called Strawbridge looking for a photograph she believed the Bates had taken, Strawbridge’s customer service representative told the customer that the Bates were “not reputable” and “could not be trusted.” The representative also stated that “things got so bad” that Strawbridge “had to get involved in a lawsuit.” The Bates filed a second suit against Strawbridge and included a claim for defamation.

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