Articles Posted in Truth and Falsity

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.

On May 31, 2013, the Fourth Circuit reversed a $4 million verdict against U.S. Bancorp for defamation, finding that the amount was excessive and/or unsupported because the jury apparently based its verdict on expert testimony of lost profits admitted in violation of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Still, in MyGallons, LLC v. U.S. Bancorp, the court found that Bancorp’s public statements refuting the plaintiff’s press release were sufficient to support defamation liability, so it ordered a new trial on damages only.

When Steve Verona conceived of a prepaid consumer gas card program, he contacted Voyager Fleet Systems, Inc., a subsidiary of U.S. Bancorp, about processing the program’s payments. Voyager operates a payment processing network for commercial and fleet gas purchases but was not set up to issue consumer gas cards. Verona explained his program to Bancorp executives, one of whom directed Verona to work with an authorized reseller of the Voyager payment processing system, “GoGas,” as Bancorp would not work with him until the program was larger. GoGas submitted and Bancorp approved Verona’s fleet card application and issued Verona several dozen cards using the Voyager payment network. Verona distributed the cards to family and friends who used the cards to purchase gas. Verona branded the program “MyGallons.”

Internally, Bancorp stated that MyGallons was an approved Voyager fleet card account and that it was working to expand the program. Bancorp began drafting a new contract for its relationship with MyGallons. Bancorp, GoGas and Verona worked to design fleet cards with MyGallons and Voyager logos on them.

Defamation claims carry a particularity requirement, though the degree of particularity required is not as high as with fraud claims. While it is not necessary, for example, to specifically identify in the complaint the persons reading or hearing the statement, or to describe all the surrounding circumstances existing at the time the statement was allegedly made, what is required is to identify the exact words claimed to be defamatory.

This rule exists for good reason: it helps free court dockets of cases in which a plaintiff’s characterization of a statement (which is often exaggerated or unreasonable) forms the basis for the claim rather than the statement itself. Courts need to be able to make a threshold determination of things like whether the words at issue appear to be about the plaintiff, whether they are capable of being reasonably interpreted as a statement of fact, and whether they would tend to degrade the plaintiff in the eyes of the community. Defamatory meaning is a huge component of the test for liability, and the precise language used is crucial to the existence of an actionable claim.

Take the lawsuit filed in D.C. last month against NBA great LeBron James by a man claiming to be his father, Leicester Bryce Stovell.

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.”

In Virginia, defamation liability can be based on a statement that is literally true, if the true meaning of the statement arises from reasonable inferences attributable to it rather than the actual words used. Some jurisdictions refuse to recognize this “defamation by implication” or “implied defamation” theory, but on August 9, 2012, the Southern District of New York issued an opinion demonstrating that New York is among the states that recognize the doctrine.

Peter Paul Biro is in the business of art restoration and authentication and is well known in the art world for having developed scientific approaches to art authentication through fingerprint analysis. In July 2011, The New Yorker published an article titled “The Mark of a Masterpiece: The man who keeps finding famous fingerprints on uncelebrated works of art.” (Note: a full copy of the article is attached to the opinion). Biro sued the magazine, investigative journalist David Grann, and others for defamation, claiming that various passages in the article damaged his reputation to the tune of two million dollars.

In Biro v. Condé Nast, the court adopted the Fourth Circuit‘s approach to defamatory implication claims, holding that a plaintiff must make an “especially rigorous showing” that (1) the language may be reasonably read to impart the false innuendo, and (2) the author intended or endorses the inference. Where an implication arises fingerprint.jpgdue to the omission rather than the expression of facts, the court will examine whether the omission would materially change the alleged implication.

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.

When several law firm clients were vocally unhappy about the firm’s work product and billing practices, and expressed their views to a Virginia legal newspaper, the firm slapped them with a defamation suit in Richmond federal court. However, finding the allegedly defamatory statements to be subjective statements of opinion, the court dismissed the claim.

The Virginia law firm of Cook, Heyward, Lee, Hopper & Feehan, P.C. (“Cook Heyward”) entered into a contract for legal services with Trump Virginia Acquisitions LLC, Trump Vineyard Estates, LLC, and The Trump Organization, Inc. Cook Heyward provided the Trump Entities with invoices itemizing fees and costs over the course of the representation. The Trump Entities requested Cook Heyward to reformat the invoice but did not object to the amount billed, and they continued to request legal services from Cook Heyward.

After a second updated invoice, the Trump Entities indicated that they had no problem with the quality of the legal work, but thought the bills were “too high” and suggested Cook Heyward reduce its fees by approximately seventy percent. Cook Heyward informed the Trump Entities that they intended to file a motion to withdraw as counsel. trump.jpgThe Trump Entities asked Cook Heyward to reconsider, then informed them that they “should expect very bad publicity” regarding their withdrawal as counsel. After repeated requests for payment, Cook Heyward filed a motion to withdraw which the court granted.

Duck Creek Energy, an Ohio oil and gas development company, has sued two local environmental activists, Tish O’Dell and Michelle Aini, for various claims arising from their publication of statements characterizing Duck Creek’s product as “a product of fracking.” Duck Creek claims the defendants are liable for (1) defamation per se; (2) tortious interference with existing business relationships; and (3) tortious interference with prospective business relationships. According to Duck Creek, the activists acted with malice and/or negligently disseminated false information, even after being apprised of the true facts.

Duck Creek manufactures and distributes AquaSalina, a salt solution used for de-icing roads. AquaSalina is made from raw brine, a byproduct of oil and gas exploration, which Duck Creek purifies at a plant in Cleveland. It has been used for years because its heavy salt concentration works on surfaces in temperatures as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit. In contrast, a liquid solution made with rock salt only works in temperatures down to about twenty three degrees Fahrenheit. AquaSalina was environmentally tested in 2004 and found to be safe.

The Complaint alleges that shortly after an article appeared on Cleveland.com discussing the effectiveness of AquaSalina, O’Dell sent a “Dear Neighbors” email to various recipients, including the mayor of Brecksville, Ohio. Brecksville was an AquaSalina customer. In her Fracking.jpgemail, O’Dell characterized AquaSalina as “waste fracking fluids” and criticized the reporter for failing to mention toxic chemicals and radioactive material in liquid from fracking. She encouraged the email recipients to read other articles she attached, which, Duck Creek claims, had nothing to do with AquaSalina. O’Dell allegedly continued to claim, at public meetings, that AquaSalina was environmentally unsafe. Brecksville thereafter decided not to use the product. O’Dell and another member of an environmental group also allegedly warned a second city to “stop spreading carcinogens on our streets” which, Duck Creek asserts, refers to AquaSalina.

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