Not every renter loves his landlord. And many people express their feelings, for better or for worse, on social media. However, sometimes what is said on social media can land a person in hot water. Such was the case for one Iowa resident whose social media venting landed him in court as the defendant in a defamation lawsuit that wound its way all the way up to the Iowa Supreme Court. Luckily for the individual, the Iowa Supreme Court held that referring to a landlord as a “Slumlord” was not defamatory but constituted non-actionable opinion.
The plaintiff in the case was Richard Bauer, the manager of the Bauer Apartments located in the small town of Sloan, Iowa. The defendant was Bradley Brinkman, who lived across the street from the Bauer Apartments. The dispute that landed Brinkman in court started out having nothing to do with him at all.
A dog care facility, Pet Perfect, began construction next to the Bauer Apartments. Bauer was concerned that issues would arise from the dogs and their feces due to the outdoor area being constructed. Bauer tried to get the construction stopped. First, he contacted the Sloan City Council. He also contacted the owner of Pet Perfect about his concerns and offered to buy the parcel of land where the facility was being built. The owner refused to sell. Next, Bauer filed suit against the City of Sloan and the city council members claiming they failed to enforce a zoning ordinance in approving the construction of the facility.
During this ordeal, Pet Perfect posted on its own Facebook page about Bauer’s lawsuit and cameras he had installed on the exterior of the apartments. The daughter of Pet Perfect’s owner also posted about the ordeal on her own personal Facebook page. She included in her post a photo of a letter Bauer’s attorney sent to her mother. Several people commented on the post, including Brinkman, who it turned out was a friend of the owner of Pet Perfect. Brinkman’s Facebook comment stated:
It is because of shit like this that I need to run for mayor! [grinning emoji] Mr. Bauer…you sir are a PIECE OF SHIT!!! Let’s not sugar coat things here people. Kathy Lynch runs a respectable business in this town! You sir are nothing more than a Slum Lord! Period. I would love to have you walk across the street to the east of your ooh so precious property and discuss this with me!
Bauer responded not, as Brinkman suggested, by walking across the street and discussing things with Brinkman but rather by filing suit against Brinkman claiming he was liable for defamation due to his use of the term slumlord. His complaint asserted claims for libel per se, libel per quod, and libel by implication.
Nearly a year into the suit, Bauer filed a motion for partial summary judgment seeking judgment as a matter of law on liability and a trial on damages only. Brinkman resisted the motion and filed his own motion for summary judgment arguing that he could not be liable for the use of the term because it was an expression of opinion. Following a hearing, the trial court granted Brinkman’s motion finding that the term slumlord was not actionable as defamation. The appellate court affirmed on appeal and Bauer next took his appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.
The Court considered whether the term “slumlord” was a statement of fact or opinion. After considering the surrounding facts of the case, it concluded that the term was used to insult Bauer and, as such, was not a statement of fact and was not defamatory. The Court explained that the context supported the conclusion that Brinkman’s use of the term was not intended as a factual assertion that Bauer was a slumlord. Instead, it was meant as a targeted insult and constituted hyperbole, which is not actionable and is protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, the Court found that the trial court had properly dismissed the case.
This case serves as a cautionary tale for both parties. Individuals should be careful about what they write online as it could lead to being named in a costly lawsuit. Those who are the targets of online defamation should involve an experienced libel and defamation law attorney at the earliest possible opportunity to evaluate their options, particularly non-litigation options. Those who do file defamation lawsuits must also be aware of and prepared for the possibility of the Streisand effect.
The Court’s full opinion is available here.
Whether you are being accused of defaming someone or you believe that someone else has defamed you, it is important to consult an experienced slander law and cyber-smear law attorney. Our DuPage County defamation attorneys defend individuals’ First Amendment and free speech rights to address matters of public concern. Our results speak for themselves. Here you can read a federal court decision where we successfully defended our client against a libel per se claim asserting the innocent construction defense and arguing that the statements were nonactionable opinion. We also recently required a defendant who publicized an allegedly false lawsuit regarding our client to provide an apology and full retraction as part of a confidential financial settlement following our filing of a $16 million libel per se lawsuit.
Lubin Austermuehle’s Cook County defamation and slander lawyers near Evanston and Schaumburg have more than three decades of experience helping business clients unravel the complexities of Illinois and out-of-state defamation and First Amendment laws. Our Chicago slander, class-action, and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. From offices in Elmhurst and Deerfield near Northbrook and Highland Park, we serve clients throughout Illinois and the Midwest region. You can contact us online here or call us on our locally at 630-333-0333.