Articles Posted in Defamation, Libel and Slander

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Chalk up a victory for pro-consumer speech in Illinois. In a recent opinion, the Third District Appellate Court found that Better Business Bureau of Central Illinois (BBB) did not defame a business by giving it a “D-” reliability report on its website because the rating was protected as subjective opinion.

Perfect Choice Exteriors LLC, a home improvement company in Creve Coeur that installs windows, roofing, and siding, sued BBB in Peoria County circuit court for defamation, commercial disparagement, tortious interference with contract, and violation of the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Perfect Choice claimed BBB told inquiring customers that they should not do business with the company, resulting in a loss of contracts exceeding $50,000, as well as “injury to [its] reputation and standing within the business community in an amount exceeding $50,000.”

BBB initially gave Perfect Choice an “A” rating after it launched in 2009, but later changed that to a D- based on what it called the “complaint volume with the BBB for a business of [Perfect Choice’s] size” and Perfect Choice’s inadequate response to and resolution of customer complaints. Perfect Choice denied these claims and alleged that BBB never materially investigated the complaints to determine their validity. Continue reading

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Tensions between American citizens are higher than ever with no sign of slowing down any time soon and there’s ample evidence that the 2016 election played a significant role in widening those divides. Trump’s presidential campaign ran on a platform of anger and division as he routinely worked his rally crowds into a froth of resentment and hatred.

As he encourages his citizens to attack each other (both verbally and physically) his proponents who work in television, radio, and on the internet have likewise been encouraging their followers to participate in the same destructive behaviors. One such supporter, Alex Jones, has a radio show and website in which he publishes conspiracy theories about natural disasters. While the rest of the country was mourning the lives lost in the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11, and Sandy Hook, Jones publicly and repeatedly insisted the first two were inside jobs and the last one never happened. Instead, he claims survivors and their families are “crisis actors” promoting the “gun-grabbing” agenda.

But the families have had enough. Family members of eight of the Sandy Hook victims, plus an F.B.I. agent who was a first responder at the shooting, have filed a total of three defamation lawsuits against Jones. One lawsuit alleges Jones and his company, InfoWars, have continuously perpetuated the monstrous lie that the Sandy Hook families faked the deaths of their loved ones. Continue reading

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Anyone who thought the story of Stormy Daniels’s alleged affair with Donald Trump would blow over quickly should think again. Not only is Daniels not going anywhere, but she’s drawing other people into the scandal, including Keith Davidson, her former attorney.

Davidson represented Daniels in the negotiations between her and Trump for the non-disclosure agreement she signed regarding the affair she and Trump allegedly had in 2006. Under the terms of the non-disclosure agreement, Daniels was to keep quiet about the affair in exchange for $130,000.

Daniels kept her end of the deal for the first five years. Then, in 2011 she tried to sell the story of the affair to a magazine, which had agreed to pay her $15,000 for the story. But Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, allegedly threatened to sue the magazine, which backed out and never paid Daniels for the story.

Daniels said she was also threatened by a man in a parking lot while she was with her daughter, who was an infant at the time. The man allegedly told Daniels to leave Trump alone, saying it would be “a shame” if anything were to happen to her.

Although that kept Daniels quiet for the next five years, she has since come out and spoken publicly about the affair she allegedly had with Trump all those years ago.

At first, Daniels merely hinted at the possibility of an affair and refused to explicitly confirm or deny its existence. She received lots of media attention and was invited to be on various talk shows, but she consistently cited her non-disclosure agreement as the reason she could not directly talk about the alleged affair. It wasn’t until a few months ago that Daniels started talking more openly about the affair and its aftermath, claiming the non-disclosure agreement was invalid because Trump never actually signed it. Continue reading

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When a worker starts saying bad things about their employer in public, it tends to raise a certain question: are they a whistleblower or are they a disgruntled employee trying to sabotage an honest company?

According to Tesla, Martin Tripp, who used to work as a process technician for the car manufacturer, is allegedly a saboteur who is actively trying to inflict financial harm on the company. Among the allegations listed in Tesla’s complaint are defamation and theft of trade secrets.

The business defamation and trade secret lawsuit alleges Tripp wrote software that was designed to hack Tesla’s manufacturing operating system (MOS). The lawsuit claims Tripp admitted to doing so and to transferring data to third parties without Tesla’s knowledge or consent. The data Tripp allegedly stole is said to include dozens of photos and at least one video, all showing how Tesla’s MOS works.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the business lawsuit further alleges Tripp made defamatory comments about the company to the media. As an example, Tesla’s complaint points to some comments Tripp made saying some of the company’s Model 3 vehicles had punctured battery cells, but the company insists no punctured cells (battery or otherwise) have ever been used in any of their vehicles. Continue reading

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A recent libel case in Chicago federal court involving the American Bar Association illustrates the difficulty of succeeding in a defamation claim.

The litigation centered around an article published in an ABA journal in 2015. The plaintiffs comprised seven forensic handwriting experts, or “diplomates,” certified by the Board of Forensic Document Examiners, which has only 12 certified diplomates.

Defendant Thomas V., a forensic document examiner certified by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, a different body, published in the Judges’ Journal an article entitled “Forensic Handwriting Comparison Examination in the Courtroom.” Not mentioned was the fact that Thomas sits on the board of the American Board and is its past president. Both boards are certified by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board.

The article proposed preferred qualifications for forensic document examiners. The plaintiffs alleged several statements were specifically defamatory to them based on their affiliations with the Board of Forensic Document Examiners:

  1. “An appropriately trained forensic document examiner will have completed a full-time, in-residence training program lasting a minimum of 24 months per the professional published standard for training. Judges need to be vigilant of this issue. There are large numbers of practitioners who do not meet the training standard.”
  2. “The American Board of Forensic Document Examiners … is the only certification board recognized by the broader forensic science community, law enforcement, and courts for maintaining principles and training requirements concurrent with the published training standards. Be wary of other certifying bodies.”

Continue reading

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The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is arguably the most important part of the document because it guarantees all citizens the right to free speech. It means we have the right to openly debate (and criticize) each other, our neighbors, public figures, and most importantly, our own government. That right extends to specific individuals who work for, or are hoping to obtain positions in, the government. Having envisioned a government made by the people for the people, our founding fathers realized that freedom of speech would be a key ingredient to this experiment, which is why they lost no time in adding it to the Constitution.

So Josh Harms was probably taken by surprise when officials of the city in which he lives threatened to sue him for exercising his First Amendment right.

Harms, who lives in Sibley, Iowa, has been protesting his city’s government on his website, which is called “Should You Move to Sibley, Iowa?” Harms set up the website, and posts on it, in order to protest the city’s decision to allow Iowa Drying and Processing to move into a vacant building in Sibley in 2013. Harms started posting on his website a couple years later in 2015.

Iowa Drying and Processing uses pig blood to make a protein-rich supplement for animal food, so it’s not hard to imagine that Harms’ odor concerns are legitimate. He was most likely not far from the mark when he wrote on his website that the town smelled like “rancid dog food.” Continue reading

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As important as their reputation is to their career, public figures (by the nature of their jobs, which puts them in the spotlight) have a hard time controlling that reputation. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects most forms of freedom of speech, especially those regarding public figures. The idea is that free and unprohibited discussion of public figures makes for a more informed public, which can only be good for the public.

This includes creative renderings of historical events and people. Writers and artists often choose to write about things that actually happened decades, or even centuries ago, either because those events are interesting in and of themselves, and/or to make some sort of commentary on modern society.

Ryan Murphy chose to make a limited series about the making of the movie, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” which starred Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The series, “Feud: Bette and Joan,” was Murphy’s way of discussing sexism and ageism in Hollywood, two factors that continue to affect the movie and TV industry (among others) to this day, more than fifty years later.

The problem, according to a recent lawsuit, was the fact that, in addition to Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, the show necessarily had to write about other people who surrounded and interacted with those two stars at the time the film was made, including Olivia de Hallivand, now 101 years old. De Hallivand objected to the way she was portrayed in the limited series and says they never obtained her permission to use her name or likeness for the show. Continue reading

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The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants all citizens the right to free and open speech. This is especially true of people in the media talking about public figures. The news couldn’t be the news (and it couldn’t be as effective as it is) without the ability to speak freely about public figures.

John Oliver, who isn’t even an American citizen, appeared to understand this fact better than Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy.

Last summer, Oliver made fun of Murray on a segment of his show, Last Week Tonight, in which Oliver, among other things, compared Murray to a villain in a series of comedy movies. Not only did the allusion depict Murray as evil, but the comparison to a character people laugh at implied that he is weak and ineffective. Oliver acknowledged on the show that Murray would probably try to sue them over the segment, but that he would not take back anything he had said.

Murray has, in fact, had a long history of filing allegedly frivolous lawsuits against people and companies that criticize him. Most of those lawsuits have been dismissed or settled outside of court, and while such intimidation tactics might work with some people, HBO (which made a point of saying it stood by Oliver and his show) is hardly a David to Murray’s Goliath. HBO is a successful company in its own right, and like any other media company, it is well aware of its own rights under the American Constitution. Continue reading

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Although the #MeToo movement gained significant ground with prominent actresses in Hollywood, they’ve made it clear that Tinsel Town is hardly the only place where this kind of alleged abuse and misogyny take place. On the other side of the country, a recent investigation into James Levine, the former music director of the Met Opera in New York City, found that he had been guilty of sexual misconduct throughout his career, particularly towards young singers and artists over whose careers he had significant control. Levine is disputing these findings and had sued the Met for libel.

Levine worked at the Met for more than 40 years and had been hailed as one of the most beloved conductors of all time, but shortly after celebrating the milestone anniversary, Levine began to suffer from health problems that interfered with his abilities to fulfill all his duties as music director. He had to step down as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and suffered an injury that prevented him from conducting at the Met for two years, although he was kept on as music director. After his return to the podium, singers and musicians had reported that Levine had recently become erratic and hard to follow in his conducting.

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, has allegedly been trying to get Levine to step down as music director of the Met for the past few years. Levine was just recently fired after a company investigation found significant evidence that Levine was guilty of sexual misconduct, both before and during his time at the Met. The investigation came after reports of such misconduct were published in prominent newspapers. Continue reading

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The recent decision by a New York appeals court to affirm the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit filed against President Donald Trump highlights two important defenses to charges of defamation or libel.

In Jacobus v. Trump, public relations consultant Cheryl Jacobus alleged that President Trump defamed her in a series of tweets made during his presidential campaign. In these tweets, Trump repeatedly claimed that Jacobus had “begged” him for a job and “went hostile” after he turned her down. He also interspersed several other insults in the tweets calling Jacobus “A real dummy” and a “Major loser” with “zero credibility.” Jacobus alleged that these tweets harmed her career and disparaged her in the way of her profession, trade, or business.

Days before President Trump took office, the trial court dismissed the lawsuit. The trial court held that the term “begged” was merely an example “loose, figurative, and hyperbolic” language that is generally nonactionable. While acknowledging that the insults were “clearly intended to belittle and demean” Jacobus, the court found that the context of the tweets made it clear to any reader that they were statements of opinion and not fact. Consequently, they were too vague and subjective to be “susceptible to objective verification.” The appeals court affirmed the dismissal in a short order. Continue reading