Many jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, follow the old common law rule that equity will not enjoin a libel. The First Amendment carries a presumption against prior restraints, but does not pose an absolute bar to injunctive relief in defamation actions. Still, most courts are extremely reluctant to grant equitable relief in actions for libel, slander, invasion of privacy, and related actions, due in no small part to the fact that money damages are usually adequate to compensate the plaintiff.
Recently, in Pennsylvania, Dr. Steven R. Graboff, a board certified orthopaedic surgeon and expert witness, tried unsuccessfully to obtain an injunction against the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), requiring them to remove from their website an article that portrayed him in a false light. In an earlier action, Graboff had sued for false light invasion of privacy based on the offending article and a jury awarded him $196,000 in economic and non-economic damages. After the lawsuit, however, AAOS refused to take down the article. So Dr. Graboff sued them again, alleging “continued tortious conduct.”
He sought an injunction as well as additional compensatory and punitive damages, claiming AAOS intentionally and maliciously disregarded his rights by keeping the harmful article on the website in willful disregard of the earlier judgment. AAOS moved to dismiss this new action on several grounds.
First of all, the court found that the case was barred by the doctrine of res judicata, as it was based on the very same article that was at the center of the original suit. Res judicata bars a second suit involving the same facts and same parties or their privies where a judgment has already been rendered in a prior suit. Once there has been a judgment, the parties and their privies are bound as to all matters covered in the first suit as well as all other matters that could have been raised in that suit. Dr. Graboff’s second suit involved all the same parties and centered on the same article. The judgment on the merits in the first case therefore barred the second suit.
Regarding the demand for injunctive relief (i.e., removal of the article from the website), the court held that injunctive relief is not permitted for defamation and false light cases in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has not considered whether an exception to this rule might apply where a jury has determined that the defendants’ statements were defamatory, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has considered the question and has concluded that Pennsylvania would not adopt such an exception, even though Missouri and Ohio have done so.
The Third Circuit considered several factors in its decision. The court found that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court “continues to place great emphasis on the adequate remedy doctrine as a bar to equitable relief.” The common law maxim that equity will not enjoin defamation has been in place for almost two centuries. The court found that only a few other states have recognized an exception where a jury had found defamation, and Pennsylvania wasn’t one of them. Even if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court might adopt the exception, the Third Circuit believed it would likely be very selective in choosing the cases in which it would apply it. And the court didn’t believe the case before it was a particularly strong candidate for making new law.
Moreover, Graboff had an adequate remedy at law–he’d been awarded almost $200,000 in damages. Accordingly, the court refused Graboff’s request for an injunction and dismissed the second suit in its entirety.