You may have heard that truth is a complete defense to a claim of defamation. That’s essentially true, but here in Virginia, it’s more accurate to say that a plaintiff must prove falsity as part of his case in chief. Whether a statement claimed to be defamatory is true or false is normally an issue reserved for trial to be determined by a jury. That’s because it’s an issue of fact (as opposed to a question of law, which the judge can decide without deference to the jury). This means that in most cases, a defendant won’t be able to get a defamation claim dismissed on demurrer (i.e., thrown out at the very beginning of the litigation process, without the need for a trial) on the basis that the alleged defamatory statement is true and therefore not actionable. Trials are usually necessary to determine whether the statement is, in fact, true. Sometimes, however, the truth of the allegedly defamatory statement is apparent from the face of the pleadings. When this is the case, trial courts have been known to sustain demurrers.
A recent example comes from the County of Dinwiddie, Virginia (population 28,000). The facts of Dennis F. Harrup III v. Collison F. Royer et al. go something like this. Dennis Harrup owns Harrup Real Estate, LLC (“HRC”). HRC took out a loan of roughly one million dollars with Blue Ridge Bank, secured by a deed of trust (i.e., mortgage) establishing liens on several properties located throughout Richmond, Petersburg, and Lancaster. The deed of trust contained a provision restricting HRC’s right to sell the secured properties. In contravention of this restriction, HRC managed to sell one of the houses. A title search, for reasons that aren’t clear, did not reveal the liens held by Blue Ridge Bank. In the course of the sale, Mr. Harrup signed a “no financing agreement” indicating that he owned the house personally and that there were no liens or encumbrances against it. The documents clearly showed that both of these assertions were false–the property was owned by HRC, not Harrup personally, and there was a substantial lien against it held by Blue Ridge Bank.
When Blue Ridge Bank discovered that HRC had sold the property in violation of the deed of trust, it hired a lawyer to send HRC a letter. In that letter–which apparently was sent to several people and not just Harrup himself–the lawyer asserted that Mr. Harrup had made knowingly false representations in the No Financing Agreement. Mr. Harrup responded with a lawsuit for defamation and insulting words.
Mr. Harrup’s complaint did not identify the specific parts of the letter claimed to be defamatory, but presumably he was upset about the part accusing him of intentional misrepresentations. Normally, a plaintiff like Mr. Harrup would have to prove at trial that he did not make intentional misrepresentations. It would be up to the jury to review the evidence and decide whether the lawyer defamed him with false accusations. In this case, however, that wasn’t necessary.
The defendants filed something called a “motion craving oyer.” A motion craving oyer is a motion defendants can bring when a plaintiff brings a claim against them based on a document but fails to attach a copy of that document to the complaint. When a court grants a motion craving oyer, the plaintiff is required to file the documents in question and they are treated as part of the complaint. Here, the court found that because the plaintiff’s claims depended on various legal instruments that were not attached to the complaint, the plaintiff would be required to attach them to the complaint. This included the Deed of Trust, Assignment of Rents, Deed of Bargain and Sale, Title Insurance Commitment, and No Financing Affidavit, as all of those documents were included with the lawyer’s letter upon which the claims were based.
When it is apparent from the four corners of a complaint that the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, dismissal of the case is appropriate. Once all of these documents were deemed part of the complaint, it became obvious that Mr. Harrup did not have a valid case and there was nothing for the jury to decide. As the court explained:
The Plaintiff represented in the No Financing Agreement that he owned the Property free from liens. However, as made clear from the four other documents, both statements are inaccurate. Harrup Real Estate, not the Plaintiff, owns the Property and Blue Ridge Bank has a significant lien on the Property. Therefore, the Royer Letter’s claims that the Plaintiff made knowingly false representations in the No Financing Agreement are not defamatory, but rather substantiated by the supplementary documents.
(See Opinion at 4). In other words, even accepting all the allegations of the complaint as true, it was clear that the lawyer’s letter did not contain any false statements about Mr. Harrup. Because truth is a “complete defense,” the court dismissed the case.