Verdicts

Reporting a Fact is Never Defamatory

Facts are not defamatoryIt is never defamation to report a fact, even if that fact is that a person was charged with a crime they did not commit. I understand why callers sometimes don’t understand this distinction. The completely innocent caller was falsely arrested, so it seems like a newspaper that reports the arrest is somehow making a false statement that the caller committed a crime. But look closer, caller. The paper did not report that you committed the crime, the paper reported that you were ARRESTED for the crime. Truth is an absolute defense to any defamation claim, and it is true that you were arrested.

I also see this come up often in the context of an expunged criminal conviction. The caller was arrested and convicted for some youthful indiscretion, and later had the conviction expunged. Years later, the caller was either fired from or denied a job because a background investigation revealed the conviction. “But I had that expunged, so they shouldn’t be able to report it to my employer!”, the caller exclaims. The caller wants to sue for defamation, because in his mind the offense was expunged, and therefore it never happened. Since it never happened, it must be defamatory to claim that it did, right?

Not so much. Expungement does not change reality. The caller was arrested and convicted, so it is not a false statement to report that fact, and therefore there is no basis for a defamation claim. Note, however, that I am only talking about defamation claims. There are Labor Codes that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of expunged criminal convictions. Go here for a discussion of those Labor Code sections.

What I don’t understand is how so many attorneys miss this point and pursue doomed defamation claims for their clients.

A recent example of this that caught my eye is a case out of Nevada. As reported by the Las Vegas Sun, the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche was hired to perform an audit of a company called Global Cash Access Holdings, Inc., which is a publicly traded company that provided cash access services to the Nevada gaming industry.

The accounting firm uncovered information from an FBI bulletin which claimed that the two men who founded the company – Robert Cucinotta and Karim Maskatiya – were involved in criminal activity. As they were required to do by law, Deloitte & Touche disclosed this information to the audit committee. Cucinotta and Maskatiya were not happy with this disclosure, and felt it amounted to defamation because they were never convicted of any crimes and there was no evidence that they did anything criminal. They sued Deloitte & Touche, claiming that the disclosure cost the company $400 million in market capitalization and cost them $100 million personally.

But can you see why the comments by Deloitte & Touche were not actionable defamation? The accounting firm simply reported information that was contained in the FBI bulletin, as it was required by law to do. Certainly if those allegations against two principals of the company proved to be true it would greatly impact the value of the company, so that information was quite properly reported.

The Nevada Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Michael Cherry, said, “We agree with our sister jurisdictions that those who are required by law to publish defamatory statements should be privileged in making such statements.” In this case the court said Deloitte’s communication to the audit committee of the cash access company was required by the federal securities law.

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An Employee’s Report to Human Resources is Protected by SLAPP Statute

Human Resources Internet DefamationAlways remember when reviewing a complaint to see if it is a potential SLAPP that the anti-SLAPP statute is not only about speech, it includes the right of redress. Then, whenever you see that the defendant has complained to someone — anyone — consider whether that is a natural step one would pursue in seeking redress.

We were the first firm (that we know of anyway) to successfully pursue an anti-SLAPP motion based on a report to a bank. Our client’s partner had opened a credit card in the name of the company, and when our client found out, he went to the bank and closed the account, informing the bank personnel that his partner had committed fraud. The partner sued for defamation, and we successfully brought an anti-SLAPP motion on the grounds that reporting the fraud to the bank was the first logical step dealing with the fraud. Stated another way, all would recognize that if our client had gone to the police and reported the fraud, that would be protected, but who would go directly to the police without first running to the bank to get the card cancelled in order to stop any false charges? The court agreed with my argument that the report to the bank is part of the same right of redress.

And so it was found in the just reported case of Aber v. Comstock. There, and employee brought a claim against her employer and two of its employees for sexual assault. Comstock, one of the employees who Aber was suing, filed a cross-complaint against Aber for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Comstock’s case was likely doomed from the start, because as I have already explained here, suing someone for suing will almost always be a SLAPP, and he even alleged that part of the defamation was the report to the police, which is clearly protected. Specifically, Comstock alleged that Aber “orally published false statements about COMSTOCK to third parties, including but not limited to, friends, employees of Wolters Kluwer, health care practitioners, and the police.” The court reviewed the law that applied to each of these statements, and the most interesting was the analysis of the statement Aber made to her employer’s HR representative.

Were Ader’s statements to the HR department protected under the SLAPP statute?

An earlier case (Olaes v. National Mutual Ins. Co.) had found that statements to a company’s HR department were not part of “an official preceding authorized by law” and therefore did not fall under the SLAPP statute. Here, however, the court noted that a U.S. Supreme Court case (Faragher v. City of Boca Raton) had found that the failure of an employee to take advantage of corrective opportunities afforded by the employer could be used as an affirmative defense against a claim by the employee. So, put them together. Aber did not have to report the alleged assault to HR, but had she failed to do so, then her subsequent action for the assault could have been defeated. Bingo. That makes the report to HR a necessary part of the right of redress, and pulls it into the anti-SLAPP statute.

The case was properly decided, but is a little concerning given the course the court followed. The justices shoe-horned the report to HR into the SLAPP statute by finding it was necessary in order to preserve the ultimate legal action. As we demonstrated with our credit card case, the standard need not be so stringent, and instead the determining factor should be whether the conduct was a natural part of the process.

Go here to see the complete decision in Lisa Aber v. Michael Comstock.

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Hacienda Heights Doctor, Pankaj Karan, Hit with $1.5 Million Judgment for Internet Defamation

In this case, we represented a business and the individual who owns that business. The defendant, a medical doctor named Pankaj Karan, was starting his own business, MDTelexchange, and traveled to an overseas company also owned by our client (we’ll call that the “foreign company”) and entered into a contract for the creation of some custom call center software.

And that is where the divergence in the two versions of the story begins. Our clients asserted (and proved at trial) that the working software was delivered on time by the foreign company. The defendant, Dr. Karan, claimed otherwise, and blamed the failure of his start-up company on the software.

Dr. Karan’s claims never made sense, because while the software would have been useful in his business, it was in no way essential. Blaming the software for the failure of the business was akin to saying a business failed due to a lack of business cards. But for whatever reason, Dr. Karan chose to blame our clients, and in an email announced that he was going to “work night and day to inflict the maximum amount of financial pain that is allowed under the law.” To that end, he ignored the fact that his contract was with the foreign company, and instead attacked our client personally, along with his other company, taking to the Internet to trash their reputations.

This is a scenario that I see over and over in defamation cases. Someone becomes unhappy with a business or individual, and decides to criticize them on-line. It might even begin with a laudable motive – just putting out the word to the public to avoid a business that did not satisfy the critic. I would defend to the death the right of anyone to go on line and publish a legitimate criticism of a business.

But something happens that takes the person beyond a legitimate review. As the person types the words, he or she decides it’s just not stinging enough and won’t cause enough harm. In this case, Dr. Karan must have felt that a legitimate review of the foreign company, stating that in his opinion the software did not work as promised or was not delivered on time, just wasn’t hurtful enough. He posted two articles on his own blog, and sent an email to our clients’ customers. In the email and postings, Dr. Karan’s comments had almost nothing to do with the alleged problems with the software. Indeed, he abandoned his claim that the software was late, and instead claimed that it had never been delivered at all. He added that our client had cheated an employer ten years earlier, and that his company had failed to pay vendors hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although our clients had never received a single complaint from a customer, Dr. Karan claimed that “they are swindlers of the highest kind and have milked many of their clients of money and time.”

At trial, Dr. Karan could not identify a single customer that our clients had “swindled”, he could not identify a single vendor they had failed to pay, could not specify how he had cheated his former employer, and acknowledged that the software was in fact delivered. Today, an Orange County jury, known for being very conservative with damage awards, awarded $1.5 million jointly and individually to both of our clients for the damage to their reputations and business, caused by Dr. Karan.

In a standard civil action, the plaintiff has the burden to prove the case. This is true in a defamation action as well, but since truth is a defense to defamation, the burden of proving a statement is true falls on the defendant. I can’t fathom how defendant thought he would get away with what he published in this email and on his blog, but I think he may have thought he would be safe because we could not prove a negative. In other words, how do you show that you have never defrauded any of your customers? Bring in every customer you have ever worked with to testify that you did not defraud them? That would be impossible, and that is why the law puts the burden on defendant to prove the TRUTH of the statements. Dr. Karan could not prove his statements were true.

[UPDATE — January 2, 2014]  Dr. Karan did not go silently into the good night. His attorneys appealed the $1.5 million verdict, claiming there was insufficient evidence to support an award of that size. To that claim, and in denying the appeal, the court opened its opinion with the sentence, “All things considered, appellant Dr. Pankaj Karan got off cheaply in the trial court.” Better yet, in commenting on our brief, the court stated:

[Dr. Karan] has misstated the record in numerous particulars, as shown in a respondents’ brief so devastating it has left Karan, like Job, with no reply but silence and a hand over his mouth.

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

Tustin Financial Plaza
17852 17th St., Suite 201
Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

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