Articles Posted in Truth and Falsity

In an opinion published earlier this week by a federal court in Alexandria, the court analyzed a defamation claim brought by a sales representative against her former employer, manufacturer of the Mammotome breast biopsy system. Her former supervisor, after terminating her employment, had met with her largest customer to introduce her replacement to them, and when asked about her whereabouts, the supervisor responded that the employee had “up and left” and added that she was “not a closer.” The customer was not pleased, as they had held the employee in very high regard, and when they heard the news that she had parted ways with the manufacturer, they reached out to her and helped her land a job with another medical device company. The employee was also not pleased when she heard this, and she sued her old boss for defamation. The court denied her claim and entered summary judgment in favor of her former employer.

The case is Jasna Kuhar v. Devicor Products, Inc. The first statement at issue was that of Ms. Kuhar’s former supervisor, Joseph Baia, who told the customer that Ms. Kuhar had left Devicor voluntarily, without giving prior notice (which is how the court interpreted the “up and left” statement). As a preliminary matter, the court noted that this was a statement of fact, capable of being proven true or false (which is a prerequisite for defamation liability). The court disagreed, however, with Ms. Kuhar’s argument that the statement was “per se” defamatory in that it disparaged her qualifications as a sales representative. Ms. Kuhar presented no evidence to suggest that immediate resignation was frowned upon in the sales profession. (And at-will employees have the right to resign without giving advance notice). Here, Ms. Kuhar’s offer letter stated expressly that “Your relationship with the Company will therefore be at-will, which means you or the company may terminate your employment at any time, with or without cause or notice.” The court also noted that the undisputed evidence not only showed that the statement had not prejudiced her in her profession or trade, but that she had not, in fact, suffered any damage. Her customers testified that they continued to hold her in high regard, and even helped her find another job.

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You may have heard that truth is a complete defense to an action for libel or slander. This is essentially correct, but it would be more accurate to say that to win a defamation case, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the statements at issue are false. In other words, the burden of demonstrating falsity lies with the person bringing the case; the defendant does not need to prove that the statements were true. If the jury finds that the odds of a defamatory statement being true are exactly 50-50, the defendant wins, not because “truth is a complete defense,” but because the plaintiff failed to convince the jury that the statement was false.

So if you’re a prospective plaintiff considering suing someone for defamation, you need to understand that you’re not going to win unless the words that were spoken or written about you are false. And when I say “false,” I mean that the part of the statement that is hurtful or offensive–the “sting” of the statement–needs to be false in all material respects. If the stinging words are substantially true, forget litigation. Filing a lawsuit is only going to invoke the Streisand Effect and bring more attention to the situation, resulting in further harm to your reputation.

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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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The case of AdvanFort Co. v. International Registries, Inc. involves a defamation claim brought by AdvanFort and its owners against their former attorney, maritime lawyer John Cartner, and The Maritime Executive, a maritime industry journal. According to the complaint, shortly after AdvanFort complained about getting billed over $28,000 for less than two weeks’ worth of legal services, Cartner wrote an article entitled “Self-Described AdvanFort ‘Billionaire’ May Not Be” in which he made numerous assertions allegedly calculated to lower AdvanFort in the estimation of the maritime community. Cartner responded that his article amounted to mere rhetorical hyperbole, which is not actionable, and that the article was not written with malice.

Defamation requires either a provably false factual assertion or a statement that can be reasonably interpreted as stating or implying actual facts about a person. Rhetorical hyperbole is protected under the First Amendment and cannot form the basis of a defamation claim. (See Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 17, 21). The Fourth Circuit has described rhetorical hyperbole as a statement that “might appear to make an assertion, but a reasonable reader or listener would not construe that assertion seriously.” (See Schnare v. Ziessow, 104 Fed. App’x 847, 851 (4th Cir. 2004)).

In analyzing whether a particular statement will be actionable as defamation in Virginia, it’s usually helpful to review recent cases to see how actual judges have ruled. It’s often not entirely clear whether a statement is an assertion of fact, an expression of opinion, or rhetorical hyperbole. Here’s how Judge O’Grady ruled with respect to the various statements at issue in this article:
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The Internet is full of factual assertions that were true at the time they were first published, but no longer are. Can future events modify the factual and legal landscape in such a way as to create defamation liability where there initially was none?

Earlier I wrote about the case of Lorraine Martin v. Hearst Corporation. Lorraine Martin brought a defamation action against several news outlets which had published accounts of her arrest for drug-related charges. It’s not that she wasn’t arrested; her complaint was that the charges were dropped in 2012 and that the publications refused to remove the original articles, which were still available online and causing harm to her reputation. The statements had become false over time, she argued, because Connecticut has an “erasure statute” which provides that after a certain amount of time after the dismissal of a criminal charge, the charge is deemed “erased” and the person’s arrest record is wiped clean. The District of Connecticut rejected this argument, finding nothing in the statute to suggest that the legislature had intended to impose any requirements on anyone outside of courts or law enforcement. On January 28, 2015, the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of her claims.

On August 26, 2010, the Connecticut Post, Stamford Advocate, and Greenwich Time, all published articles online stating that Martin had been arrested and charged with numerous drug violations after police received information handcuffs.jpgthat a pair of brothers was selling marijuana in town. News 12 Interactive, LLC, published an Internet article reporting that Martin was arrested “after police say they confiscated 12 grams of marijuana, scales and traces of cocaine from [her] house.” Martin conceded that these statements were all true at the time they were originally published. (Note: even before reading the court’s analysis, it should be apparent to most of you that when a plaintiff admits her defamation action is based on a true statement, there are going to be problems.)

Emily Hughes is an unhappy customer of Johnson Utilities, which supplies water to parts of Arizona. Emily posted various complaints to a Facebook group in which she described “yellow water” coming from her faucets and expressed dismay about low water pressure. Until recently, I had never heard of Emily Hughes, Johnson Utilities, or the allegations about yellow water being supplied to certain residents of Arizona. But Johnson Utilities decided that the appropriate means to address the situation was to sue Emily for defamation. That caused the story to show up in my news feed, mostly in the form of opinion pieces mocking the lawsuit.

The reason the lawsuit strikes so many as silly is that Emily Hughes didn’t just write about the yellow water entering her home, she took a video of it. The video clearly shows yellow water coming out of a faucet. She uploaded the video to a Facebook page entitled “Citizens Against Johnson Utilities”–a page ostensibly formed by citizens concerned with the local water provider’s environmental practices as well as low water pressure in the area. The site was renamed “The San Tan Valley Safe Water Advocates” in August. CBS 5 News included Emily’s video in a televised report about consumer complaints regarding the water supplied by Johnson Utilities.

At first glance, the complaint appears to have very little merit. Johnson Utilities complains about things that are generally not actionable in a court of law, like Emily expressing “extreme hostility” towards Johnson Utilities, going on a “ceaseless vendetta,” and posting various “disparaging statements” on Facebook. Johnson even makes the yellow water.jpgodd allegation that Emily’s opposition to a rate increase was part of a scheme to defame the company. The lawsuit suggests she would “oppose any rate changes that could be beneficial” to the utility company, without recognizing the possibility that Emily might just prefer not to have to pay more money for water.

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.

So your criminal record has been erased. Congratulations! Now you’re thinking about bringing a libel action against the news agencies who published stories documenting your arrest, because the local “deemer” statute states that you are deemed never to have been arrested and those embarrassing articles are still available online. Good idea? Have those articles, truthful at the time they were first published, become defamatory in light of recent events? Not according to a recent federal-court opinion out of Connecticut, which rejected Lorraine Martin’s claims for libel, false light, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy in a case she filed against Hearst Corporation and other media outlets.

Lorraine Martin and her two sons were arrested in August 2010 and charged with possession of narcotics, drug paraphernalia and a controlled substance. Several news outlets published brief accounts of the arrest and charges in print and online. The charges were dismissed in January 2012 and qualified for erasure under Connecticut’s erasure statute which provides that thirteen months after a criminal charge is dismissed, the charge is erased and the person charged is deemed to have never been arrested. Ms. Martin asserted that because she qualified for erasure and had been deemed to have never been arrested, the defendants’ statements became false and defamatory. Ms. Martin asked the publications to remove the online articles and, when they refused, sued them.

Precepts of statutory construction dictate that the meaning of a statute be ascertained from its text and its relationship to other statutes. If the text is plain and unambiguous, the court will not consider extra-textual evidence. The “Erasure of Criminal Records” statute requires that court records and police and prosecutor records be erased following final judgment in a case in which the defendant is acquitted or the charge is eraser.jpgdismissed or where a nolle prosequi is entered. Read as a whole, the statute concerns only the records of courts and law enforcement agencies and imposes requirements on them. For example, the statute prohibits the court clerk from disclosing information about erased charges. The court found that nothing in the statute suggests that the legislature intended to impose requirement on persons who work outside of courts or law enforcement.

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.

Applying Virginia law, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld a $1.4 million jury verdict against Air Wisconsin back in March of 2012, finding it was responsible for slander of a former pilot and not entitled to immunity. On June 17, 2013, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider the question of whether a court can deny the immunity provided by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) without a prior determination that the air carrier’s statements to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were materially false.

After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Congress passed the ATSA in order to encourage the reporting of security concerns. The ATSA requires airlines and their employees to report potential security threats to the TSA. Reporting parties are given broad immunity and may only be liable for reports made with actual knowledge that the report was false, inaccurate, or misleading, or with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the report. Because failure to report can result in civil penalties, shorthand for the policy has become known as “when in doubt, report.”

William Hoeper was a pilot for Air Wisconsin Airlines. Hoeper apparently had failed three proficiency exams and abandoned his fourth attempt. Approximately ninety minutes into the test, Air Wisconsin contends that Hoeper ran the simulator out of fuel, flamed out the engines, and nearly crashed. According to Air Wisconsin, Hoeper knew he would be terminated and was acting irrationally, yelling and cursing at his instructors. Hoeper’s version of the SCT.jpgstory is that Air Wisconsin was conducting the simulator test unfairly, and a personal dispute was escalated into a matter of national security.

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