Articles Posted in Slander

Criminal defense attorney Larry L. Archie received a good bit of publicity recently over his slogan, “Just Because You Did It Doesn’t Mean You’re Guilty,” as shown below on a North Carolina billboard. Yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a ruling that stands for a similarly counterintuitive proposition: despite the widespread notion that “truth is a complete defense” to defamation claims, you can’t always escape liability for slander even if everything you said was literally true. Even where the words, when read out of context, are literally true and defamatory meaning is not immediately apparent, Virginia law permits a plaintiff to maintain an action for defamation where innuendo would lead a reasonable reader to infer a defamatory meaning.

The case of Pendleton v. Newsome involves the heartbreaking story of a seven-year-old child with a severe peanut allergy who ingested a peanut at school and died. According to the allegations in the complaint, the child’s mother, Laura Mary-Beth Pendleton (the plaintiff) had informed the school staff earlier in the school year about her daughter’s severe allergy to peanuts, that she provided the school with specific instructions, signed by the child’s pediatrician, about how to treat her daughter in the event of an emergency, and that she brought in an “EpiPen Jr.” for the school to keep on hand to inject Epinephrine if needed. She alleges she was told by the school’s clinic assistant that they already had all the equipment they needed and didn’t need the EpiPen.
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Defamation law affords remedies to plaintiffs whose reputations have been tarnished by the false and damaging statements of others. But defamation plaintiffs face a particular dilemma: because legal proceedings are generally open to the public, filing a lawsuit over the libel or slander usually results in further publicity of the very statements the plaintiff wants to suppress. This has become known as the Streisand Effect, and is the same dilemma faced by plaintiffs seeking to enforce contracts containing non-disparagement provisions.

A vivid example is provided by the case of Dr. Steven A. Guttenberg v. Dr. Robert W. Emery, currently pending in District of Columbia federal court. Doctors Guttenberg and Emery were joint shareholders of an oral surgery practice for roughly 20 years, but their relationship soured and litigation ensured in 2008. The doctors settled that case with a settlement agreement containing a non-disparagement provision that restricted each of them from making statements concerning the other that might be harmful to reputation.
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Sometimes the context in which a statement is made provides the speaker with a qualified privilege against defamation claims. A qualified privilege generally attaches to communications between persons on a subject in which the persons share an interest or duty. If such a privilege applies, the speaker will not be liable for slander unless the plaintiff can show by “clear and convincing” proof that the privilege has been lost or abused. In a published opinion released yesterday by the Supreme Court of Virginia, the court reversed its prior decisions mandating that the speaker have acted in good faith as a prerequisite to the privilege attaching, and clarified the situations in which the privilege can be lost or abused.

The case involved a dispute between Dr. Robert Smith, a trauma surgeon, and Dr. Bradley Cashion, an anesthesiologist. In November of 2009, the two were part of an emergency operating team providing care to a critically injured patient. The patient did not survive the procedure, and Dr. Smith blamed Dr. Cashion. In the presence of other members of the operating team, Dr. Smith claimed the patient “could have made it with better resuscitation” and directly accused Dr. Cashion of purposefully failing to resuscitate him. “You just euthanized my patient,” he allegedly told Dr. Cashion.

The trial court sustained Dr. Smith’s demurrer to the statements that the patient “could have made it with better resuscitation” and “[y]ou determined from the beginning that he wasn’t going to make it and purposefully didn’t resuscitate him,” finding them both to be non-actionable expressions of opinion. The Virginia Supreme Court disagreed, finding that both statements attributed the patient’s death to Dr. Cashion’s action or inaction, which it found to be an allegation of fact capable of being proven true or false. The latter statement was held to be the equivalent of the “you just euthanized my patient” statement, which the trial court correctly found to be a surgery.jpgstatement of fact. (Note: Justice McClanahan, however, found the euthanasia references to be mere rhetorical hyperbole, and wrote a detailed dissenting opinion explaining why she would find the statements not actionable).

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.

I previously reported on the Stafford County case of Suzanne Brown v. Katherine Schoeneman in which Brown, an FBI agent, brought a defamation action against Schoeneman for allegedly false reports Schoeneman made to superiors accusing Brown of making sexual advances toward her. The Government removed the case to federal court, substituted itself as the defendant under the Westfall Act, and moved to dismiss under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The court granted the motion as the FTCA’s waiver of sovereign immunity expressly excludes claims for libel and slander. See 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h).

The Westfall Act (aka the Federal Employees Liability Reform and Tort Compensation Act of 1988) amended the Federal Tort Claims Act to make it the exclusive remedy for torts committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment. It precludes federal employees from being sued for claims arising under state tort law (such as slander or intentional infliction of emotional distress) if they were acting within the scope of their employment. See 28 U.S.C. § 2679(b)(1). If the FTCA precludes recovery against the United States, then the plaintiff may be left without a remedy, as this case demonstrates.

Upon consideration of the Government’s motion to dismiss, the only issue before the court was whether the allegedly defamatory acts fell within the scope of Ms. Schoeneman’s employment. The plaintiff did not dispute that if the conduct was committed within the scope of employment, substitution of the United States as the defendant and removal to federal court was appropriate.

If you work for the federal government and a co-worker spreads false and malicious rumors about you that damage your reputation, it will be very difficult to pursue a claim for libel or slander against the individual in question. The recent Maryland case of Shake v. Gividen demonstrates the hurdles a prospective plaintiff would face in pursuing such an action.

Donald Shake worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs until he was terminated in 2011. Teresa Gividen and Brian Sexton also worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Gividen was the Assistant Human Resources Chief. Shake claimed that Gividen and Sexton accused him of accessing the medical records of a veteran and not completing hundreds of work orders. He asserted that Gividen and Sexton started rumors that Shake was the subject of disciplinary proceedings and that numerous complaints had been lodged against him. Shake sued Gividen and Sexton for defamation, alleging that they slandered his name and reputation by making false and malicious statements about him. Shake alleged that he lost his job and retirement benefits as a result of the slander and that his reputation was harmed such that he was unable to secure subsequent employment.

The United States filed a motion contending that Gividen and Sexton should be dismissed because they were acting within the scope of their employment, and it asked to be substituted as the sole defendant in the case pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA). The United States further argued that Shake’s defamation claim should then be dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies and on sovereign immunity grounds. The court agreed.

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.

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.

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.”

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