Statements made by litigants and their attorneys in judicial proceedings cannot form the basis for a defamation action because they are protected by an absolute privilege. But what if an attorney, desirous of increased media exposure, takes copies of what might otherwise be considered slanderous statements and forwards them to the media? Do statements made in judicial proceedings lose their privileged status when republished to third parties? The answer, according to Norfolk judge Charles E. Poston, is that it depends on whether the attorney acted with malice.
In D’Alfio v. Theuer, a sea captain sued a lawyer who had filed at least one lawsuit against him on behalf of a client claiming employment discrimination. The lawsuit, the sea captain contended, contained numerous false and defamatory allegations, such as that the captain had ordered a seaman on his ship to be handcuffed in retaliation for speaking to a newspaper reporter and that he had threatened to put him in a straightjacket. What the captain found particularly troublesome, however, was that the seaman’s lawyer faxed a copy of the lawsuit to the media. He sued the lawyer for defamation.
The lawyer filed a “demurrer” (essentially a motion to dismiss the complaint) on the ground that the allegedly defamatory statements were protected by absolute or qualified privilege. Judge Poston overruled the demurrer and permitted the lawsuit to proceed.