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.
Stovell points to several factors as evidence that he is LeBron James’ father, such as allegations that (1) he had a sexual encounter with James’ mother in the applicable time frame, (2) LeBron looks a lot like him, (3) the name “LeBron” was created using the first two letters of “Leicester” and “Bryce”, and (4) LeBron named his second son “Bryce.” He also claims Ms. James told several people that Leicester Bryce Stovell was LeBron James’ father.
He is upset about a quote from LeBron in the April 30, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated, which he characterizes as “to the effect that” Stovell “abandoned” LeBron and his mother, leaving them “alone and destitute” and subjecting Stovell to “public ridicule.” That sounds serious, doesn’t it? But take a look at what LeBron actually said, as quoted in the Sports Illustrated article:
My father wasn’t around when I was a kid,” James says, “and I used to always say, ‘Why me? Why don’t I have a father? Why isn’t he around? Why did he leave my mother?’ But as I got older I looked deeper and thought, ‘I don’t know what my father was going through, but if he was around all the time, would I be who I am today?’ It made me grow up fast. It helped me be more responsible. Maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.
See the difference? When presented with the inevitable motion to dismiss, the court will examine the actual quoted statement, not Stovell’s characterization of the statement. The court will consider, among other things, whether a vague statement about LeBron’s thought process as a child about his non-present father amounted to a false statement of fact, and if so, whether it amounted to an attack against Mr. Stovell’s reputation.