Posts Tagged ‘Internet Defamation’

Can a Court Order Someone Not to Defame You?

Temporary Restraining Order

I get many calls from victims of Internet defamation who want me to go to court and get an order to stop the defamation. In other words, they want a court order that stops someone from speaking or publishing statements that the victims deems to be defamatory. Is that possible?

Like most legal questions, the answer is, “it depends.”

California law is very clear that after a trial has determined that the statements being made are defamatory, the court can order the defendant to stop making those statements. The reason is that defamatory speech is not protected, so once it has been found to be defamatory, the court can order the defendant not to repeat the defamatory statements. Once the court has issued such an order, it can be enforced just like any other court order, with the court assessing sanctions and even jail time if the defendant refuses to comply.

By the way, most attorneys do not appear to be aware that a “gag order” is constitutionally permissible. In law school it was drummed into their heads that a court cannot order someone to speak, but they fail to realize that once a court has found that a statement is defamatory, it is no longer protected speech. I see complaint after complaint where the attorney has not requested injunctive relief, and that does not serve the client well. Without the injunction, even if the defamed party prevails on the defamation action, there will be nothing to prevent the defendant from saying the same things again, necessitating an entirely new case. As a practical matter, a defendant just having been found liable for defamation will probably not want to be sued again for the same comments, but I prefer not to leave things to chance.

So you absolutely can silence someone AFTER the court has found the speech is defamatory, but the much tougher challenge is getting a court to order a defendant to stop defaming the victim BEFORE there has been a trial. Typically, it takes at least a year to take a matter to trial, and that may be far too long for the defamation victim. A temporary injunction can be obtained in a matter of days, so that affords a much faster remedy if it is available.

But there is a problem. Read the rest of this entry »

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Defamation is Bad, but it Doesn’t Justify Chilling Free Speech

Blocked in Canada

Our neighbors to the North are very American-like, until you get to issues of free speech. Most view Canada as the “least protective of free speech in the English-speaking world.” Reasonable minds can differ on some of Canada’s laws, such as prohibiting the media from identifying criminals until they have been convicted, but most of the law is still based on policies designed to prevent any criticism of the government. Canadians can be held liable by English-Canadian courts for comments on public affairs, about public figures, which are factually true, and which are broadly believed.

A recent parody video posted on You Tube illustrates just how lacking the concept of free speech is in Canada. The video is a fake cable company ad posted by Extremely Decent Films. It does not mention any cable company by name, and indeed it is specifically directed at American cable companies. Nonetheless, someone lodged a complaint in Canada, and that was sufficient to scare You Tube into removing the video, given the vagaries of Canada’s libel laws (although the video has since been reposted in response to articles such as this one).

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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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Case Illustrates How Some Judges Just Don’t “Get” Defamation

Defamation on the Internet Calling Someone a Liar
I run into this attitude from judges occasionally. Thankfully, I’ve always been able to turn them around, but when I read about it, it still raises my hackles a little.

The attitude of which I speak was most recently illustrated by a New York judge named Harold Baer. The case involved a couple of former girlfriends of Matthew Couloute Jr., a New York Lawyer. The women went to the website LiarsCheatersRUs.com and allegedly posted bad comments about Couloute. (One denies making the posts, the other says they were truthful.)

If the comments had been limited to statements about how he was a cheap date or a lousy kisser, I would defend to the death their right to say such things. But as is often the case, someone who is mad enough to go to such a hate site is someone who wants to inflict pain, so they stray far afield. One of the women allegedly posted the comment, “He is very, very manipulating, he’s an attorney so he’s great at lying and covering it up without batting an eye.”

In anyone’s book, that is defamatory. The statement “great at lying” states not only that he has lied, but that he had lied on multiple occasions to the point that he is great at it. The “without batting an eye” comment means that he has no compunction against lying, so that is a slam on his ethics. But here was the judge’s reasoning for throwing out the case:

“The average reader would know that the comments are ’emotionally charged rhetoric’ and the ‘opinions of disappointed lovers.'”

With all due respect Judge (Judges hate it when you say that), that does not make the comments non-defamatory. Yes, the circumstances of a statement can dictate whether the statement was meant to be taken as true, but you don’t get to call someone a liar and get a pass because the reader knows you were mad when you said it. The circumstance that allows you to get away with calling someone a liar is if the reader would know that you simply don’t have sufficient knowledge to know whether someone is a liar, as illustrated by another case I wrote about.

Additionally, the judges comments are really demeaning toward women. I can picture him patting the heads of the defendants, saying, “there, there little ladies; you are obviously just jealous lovers and didn’t mean what you said.”

Now, in the judge’s defense, Couloute made the huge mistake of not hiring Morris & Stone to prosecute the action, and as a result it appears the law firm he did hire failed to properly plead the case. According to this article, the judge “also refused to let Couloute revise his suit to include charges of defamation.” Thus it appears that Couloute’s attorney was trying to prosecute the case under an interference with prospective economic advantage claim. That is supported by another statement in the article, that the judge said “Couloute failed to prove the women were using their words to poison clients against him.”

The moral of the story? Know that when you sue for defamation, depending on the judge, you can run into some very provincial attitudes.

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Australian Defamation Case Illustrates Life Without the CDA

Internet Defamation on Twitter

"That J-Lo, she be crazy!"

I have frequently written here on the pros and cons of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”). Without it, no website could permit comments, but by the same token it allows unscrupulous website operators to encourage defamatory postings, and then use those postings to extort payments from the victims.

Because of the latter reality, many have suggested to me that they would like to see the CDA abolished. But a case out of Australia demonstrates just how ridiculous things get without the CDA.

Those Australians are people of few words, so I had to read a number of news accounts to piece together what had occurred. A blogger by the name of Marieke Hardy apparently picked up an anonymous on-line bully. For undisclosed reasons, Hardy decided that she had determined the identity of her mystery bully, so she posted the following comment on Twitter:

“I name and shame my ‘anonymous’ internet bully. Liberating business! Join me.”

The “tweet” then provided a link back to her blog, and there on the blog she identified Joshua Meggitt as the bully. Problem was, Meggitt was not the bully.

Meggitt sued for defamation. Hardy settled with him, allegedly for around $15,000. But Meggitt wants more. Meggitt is suing Twitter for defamation for the tweet by Hardy.

Do you see how absurd things quickly become without the CDA? If Twitter is responsible for every comment, then to avoid defamation it would have to put a delay on all comments, and hire thousands of employees to review the comments. As each comment passed in front of the reviewer, he or she would need to make a quick decision about whether that comment could possibly be defamatory, and only then clear it for publication.

I want you to imagine that scenario. You are one of the Twitter reviewers. Thankfully Twitter limits each tweet to 140 characters, so there is not much to review, but you must apply your best judgment to each comment to see if anyone could be offended. So up pops the following:

“That J-Lo. She be crazy.”

Do you hit the approve or disapprove button? Was the “crazy” comment meant in a good or bad sense? Even if the person making the comment meant only that the singer Jennifer Lopez is crazy good, if you approve the comment then every person in the world who goes by the name J-Lo could potentially sue for defamation, claiming that the post accuses them of having mental problems.

But the dispute between Hardy and Meggitt takes the scenario to an even more absurd level. Applying those facts to our hypothetical, what you really received was:

“That J-Lo. http://tinyurl.com/48y28m7″

What do you do with THAT?! Twitter requires you to review and approve or deny 120 tweets per hour. To keep your job you only have less than 30 seconds to make a decision. You quickly click on the link to see why J-Lo is crazy, and you are confronted with a four and a half minute video! Do you have to watch the entire video to make sure it contains nothing defamatory? You don’t have time for that. REJECTED!

And here, all the tweeter wanted to do was pass along a great video by J-Lo.

Under the best possible circumstances, Twitter would be relegated to approving only the most milk toast comments with no possible defamatory implication. In reality though, Twitter could not possibly exist if it could be held liable for every comment posted.

To all of you who just responded with a resounding, “Who cares about Twitter?”, that’s not really the point. I’m talking big picture here.

It will be very interesting to see how the courts in Australia handle this case.

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Aaron Morris, Attorney
Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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