The Girl in the Red Bikini — A Facebook Tale

I present now a fascinating case that serves to illustrate a couple of points about Internet defamation. We’ll call this one the Girl in the Red Bikini.

Enter the Fayette County School District in Georgia. School District administrators decided it would be a good idea to warn their high school students about the dangers of posting photographs on social sites such as Facebook. They came up with a presentation with the theme, “once it’s there, its there to stay.” A perfectly valid message to teach the high schoolers.

But then they did something strange. They decided that to really drive home the point, the presentation needed embarrassing photos posted by current students. They snooped around on their students’ Facebook pages to find what they considered illustrative examples of the poor choices being made by their students.

One photo they decided was a good illustration was a photo of student Chelsea Chaney. Ms. Chaney had dared to post a picture of her standing beside a cardboard cut-out of the artist formerly know as Snoop Dogg (he now goes by Snoop Lion in case you missed the memo). Snoop (or, rather, his cardboard cut-out) is holding a can of something. I really can’t identify it from the photo. It could be a beer but it could just as easily be an energy drink. Worse, though, in the minds of the Fayette County School District, Ms, Chaney was wearing a bikini. Put those facts together, and you have what is obviously a very embarrassing photo that never should have been posted, apparently because it shows public drunkeness and promiscuity, at least in the warped minds of the District.

In reality, the photo was entirely innocent and implied nothing. (Obviously Ms. Chaney was not happy that the photo was posted so I won’t republish it, but it is already published here.) But imagine the shock of Chaney, seeing her photo come up on the screen at a school assembly, used as an example of poor choices. She didn’t think that was very cool, and is now suing the school district.

So what are the takeaways from this case (aside from not going to school in Fayette County)? The school district was idiotic to create this presentation, but it does serve to illustrate that the photos you post can have very unforeseen consequences, even if they aren’t inappropriate. Also, this is yet another example of the Barbara Streisand Effect. Chaney was justifiably embarrassed and angry that the photo was posted, but whereas before only her schoolmates saw it, now she has made it a topic of discussion all over the Internet. That may be a price she is willing to pay in order to combat this behavior, but just be aware that any action can fan the very flames you were hoping to extinguish.

Posted in Facebook, Internet Defamation | Tagged | Leave a comment

Jury Gets it Right – AEG Live Not Responsible for Michael Jackson’s Death

A Los Angeles jury just decided that Dr. Conrad Murray was hired by AEG Live, but that the company has no responsibility for any negligence by Dr. Murray that led to the death of Michael Jackson.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs had hoped that if they could convince the jurors that AEG Live hired Murray, they would hold AEG liable for Jackson’s death due to the negligence of Murray.

Sometimes in big cases like this, attorneys lose sight of basic legal principles. If decided properly, this case was properly unwinnable. In the first place, even if AEG did hire Murray, it would only be liable if it was negligent in some way. For example, if Murray was a quack and AEG was aware of that fact, it could be liable under a theory of negligent hiring. However, Murray had no history of negligence. There was no reason for AEG to suspect that Murray would be a risk to Jackson. The best plaintiffs’ counsel could do in that regard was to argue that Murray had financial problems. From there, they were hoping that the jurors would make the leap in logic that if Murray had financial problems, he might do anything to keep Jackson happy to keep his job, even if it was not good medicine.

The jurors rejected that logic. They did find that AEG Live had hired Murray, but that’s as far as they would go. They rejected all of the claims that would have supported an award of damages.

Additionally, even if the jury had found a basis for damages (plaintiffs were seeking between one and two billion dollars in damages), since the claim was for negligence, any award would have to be reduced by Jackson’s own contributory negligence. What is the percentage of Jackson’s culpability when he was the one demanding that Murray give him the drug that caused his death. Some would hold him only partially responsible, reasoning that the doctor should have intervened, while others would hold him entirely responsible, reasoning that people should be responsible for their own decision. Plaintiffs’ counsel suggested that any award should be reduced by 20% to account for Jackson’s contributory negligence.

This case was at best a Hail Mary, and with the benefit of my always perfect 20-20 hindsight, should never have been brought.

Posted in Cases | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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).

Posted in Article, Cases, Communications Decency Act, Defamation, Internet Defamation, Law, Libel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Anti-SLAPP Victory: Reality Television is Free Speech

storage warsThe reality show “Storage Wars” has created a case that offers some important anti-SLAPP (and litigation) lessons.

In December, David Hester filed a lawsuit against A&E Television Networks alleging that producers of Storage Wars rigged the reality-television series by salting storage lockers with valuable items before they were auctioned off to buyers. The producers deny the claim, pointing out that they have no access to the lockers before they are sold, but it could be that they are adding the items with the assistance of the buyers, after the purchase, to make the show more entertaining. After all, if the show was nothing but lockers full of expired National Geographic magazines, that would get boring fast. But I digress.

According to his lawsuit, Hester was told that his contract would be renewed for season four, but after complaining about the “fraud” that was being perpetrated on the viewers, he was told his services would no longer be required. He sued A&E and another entity for wrongful termination (huh?), breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith, unfair business practices, and declaratory relief.

Lesson 1:  For every wrong, there is not necessarily a remedy.

Some attorneys just never get this. If I hire you for my television show, and I have the contractual right not to renew that contract at some point in the future, and you do something I don’t like, such as telling me you don’t like the way I am running the show that I’m paying you $750,000 to be on, then I just may decide not to keep you around. You are not some bastion for the public, given the task of making sure my show is pure. All reality shows are faked to some extent, and the viewers all know they are faked (although, incredibly, I did once run into a guy who thinks Ghost Hunters is totally legit).

It may stink that Hester got “fired” for wanting to keep the show honest, but if he wanted to make sure he never got fired for criticizing the show, the he should have added a “you may not fire me when I tell you your show stinks” clause to his contract.

Lesson 2:  A faked reality show is an expression of free speech.

Can you sue Stephen King when you find out Pet Sematary [sic] is not based on reality? Then why did Hester and his counsel think they could sue A&E for its fictional Storage Wars? Not surprisingly, A&E’s attorneys asked the same question in the form of an anti-SLAPP motion. The motion was a no-brainer, because it involves a free speech issue of public interest, bringing it within the anti-SLAPP statute, and there was zero chance of Hester prevailing on at least one or more of his causes of action, so the second element was a lock. As I have explained many times here, a SLAPP suit will often make no mention of defamation or any other obviously SLAPPable claim, but nonetheless will be a SLAPP.

Lesson 3:  Betting wrong on a SLAPP can be very expensive since some courts continue to rubber-stamp huge fee applications.

There is case authority for the proposition that if a court finds that a fee application on an anti-SLAPP motion was inflated, it can deny fees altogether, but I have yet to see a court follow the rule. In one case, I was brought in to challenge a fee application, and persuaded the court to knock off about 40% of the hours that were requested by the attorney who had successfully brought the anti-SLAPP motion. When the court stated in was reducing the fees by that amount, I reminded it of the authority that it could deny the fees altogether since defense counsel had been caught padding the bill. The judge responded, “Padding, what padding? I did not see any padding.” Well your honor, if the hours were all legitimate, then you should have awarded the full amount. But since you agreed with me that 40% of the time was inappropriate, then I would describe that as padding.

I have not reviewed the invoices for the anti-SLAPP motion in this case, nor do I know what other activities if any followed the original anti-SLAPP motion (for example, the plaintiff will sometimes request permission to conduct discovery following the motion and that takes time), so I offer no opinion on whether the time spent was appropriate. In the end, even after reducing the attorney fees requested by defense counsel, the attorney fees awarded still exceeded $120,000.

Posted in anti-SLAPP Motion, Case Results, Defamation | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Women Can be Fired for Being Too Attractive, Says Iowa Supreme Court

dental-assistantA seemingly horrible decision out of Iowa provides an extreme example of how discrimination is only actionable if it involves a protected class.

In a very rare move, the Iowa Supreme Court had already issued a ruling in this case but withdrew its own ruling to give it more consideration. On Friday it reissued the ruling, standing by it decision that a dentist acted legally when he fired an assistant because he found her too attractive.

The dentist fired the employee because he felt she was a threat to his marriage, and the court ruled that is permitted, even if the employee has not done anything to lead the boss to believe he would ever have a shot at a relationship. The court held that a firing under these circumstance does not amount to illegal sex discrimination because it is the result of feelings, not gender.

The court upheld the ruling of the trial judge, who dismissed a discrimination lawsuit filed against dentist James Knight, who fired his assistant Melissa Nelson, even though he admitted he always agreed that she had been a great employee for ten years she worked for him. The trial judge and the appeal court did not see the termination as having anything to do with gender, because Nelson was replaced by another woman, and Knight’s entire staff consists of women.

Posted in Case Results, Wrongful Termination | Tagged | Leave a comment

Chink in Armor of Communications Decency Act?

Sarah Jones

Former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones won her defamation lawsuit against the gossip website TheDirty.com on Thursday in federal court, winning an award of $338,000. Whether she will ever collect any money is a different issue, but some see the decision as groundbreaking since the Plaintiff got around the Communications Decency Act.

Jones, 28, sued in 2009 after TheDirty.com published comments alleging she had slept with all of the Bengals, and had sexually transmitted diseases. The first trial ended in a deadlock, when the jurors were unable to unanimously agree whether the posts about Jones having sex with all the Bengals players and likely having sexually transmitted diseases were substantially false.

The case caught the attention of defamation attorneys after U.S. District Judge William Bertelsman ruled the website was not shielded from liability by the Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. Many thought the ruling was a departure from all other rulings protecting website operators who use third-party content, and no doubt you will see this case reported as the first chink in the CDA’s armor, but I’ll explain why it is nothing new.

Whomever posts a defamatory comment on a website is always liable for the posting. The CDA protects a website operator from liability for third-party postings, but the website operator is still liable for his own postings, and that was the case here. The “shtick” of TheDirty is for visitors to post horrible comments about people, and the host, Nik Richie, then throws in his two cents worth. It was Richie who commented that Jones had slept with every player on the team, so of course he can be held liable for his own comments.

As evidenced by the first mistrial, on a different day with a different jury, the result could have been very different, and this could very well be reversed on appeal. As I have stated here many times, context is everything. A statement is only defamatory if it is offered as a true fact as opposed to being a joke or satire. When Richie makes the claim that Jones has slept with every player on the team, how would he be in a position to know that, and can it really be taken as a true statement that she slept with EVERY player on the team?

Complicating the matter is Jones’ history. I wrote here about the cannibal who sued because he was called a thief. It’s hard to argue that you have lost reputation for being falsely accused of being a thief when you are an admitted cannibal. Here, plaintiff is same Sarah Jones who gained national attention as a teacher for her dalliances with an under-aged student, for which she was sentenced to two years in prison (suspended).

Posted in Case Results, Defamation, SLAPP | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Newsflash to Judge Lynn Hughes: Lactation is Related to Pregnancy

I reported a little over a year ago about a discrimination case out of Texas. A fired employee sued for wrongful termination based on discrimination, claiming that she was fired due to her request to use the bathroom to breast-pump.

The judge on the case was Lynn Hughes. Judge Hughes was apparently willing to begrudgingly admit that taking adverse job action against a woman because of her pregnancy could amount to illegal discrimination, but that was as far as he was willing to go. In an infamous decision, Judge Lynn Hughes held: “Lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition,” adding that after plaintiff gave birth, “she was no longer pregnant and her pregnancy-related conditions ended.” Based on that tortured logic, Judge Hughes held that the woman had no viable claim under Title VII’s prohibition (found in the “Pregnancy Discrimination Act,” or PDA) against discrimination based upon pregnancy, childbirth or a related medical condition.

To that, I responded: “The ruling is, of course, utter nonsense. Lactation occurs because of childbirth, and if a mother cannot pump or nurse, she is at risk of mastitis.” I predicted the case would be overturned on appeal, and I was right.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit just reversed the ruling by Judge Hughes, holding: “The EEOC’s argument that Houston Funding discharged [the employee] because she was lactating or expressing breast milk states a cognizable Title VII sex discrimination case.” The Court also held that “lactation is a related medical condition of pregnancy for purposes of the PDA.” As my kids would say, “no duh”.

I occasionally see judges make ridiculous decisions that show a fundamental inability to apply legal reasoning and logic. This poor woman was denied her day in court for more than a year because of an indefensible decision by Judge Hughes, who could not figure out that lactation is a part of pregnancy. Had the appeal not been taken up by the EEOC, the terminated employee might never have had her chance at justice. This decision should force Judge Hughes to realize that being a judge is just not a good match with his skill set, and he should pursue some other endeavor. Indeed, the Texas Civil Rights Project has already filed a complaint with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming judicial misconduct and asking for Judge Hughes to resign, relating to some allegedly racial comments he made.

Although the Court of Appeals put the case back on track, the employee still has some hurdles to overcome. The Court specifically stated that “nothing in this opinion should be interpreted as precluding an employer’s defense that it fired an employee because that employee demanded accommodations.” Some cases have held that an employee cannot state a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to “accommodate” breast-feeding or pumping, because lactation is not a “disability”. In this regard, the employer in this case appears to have been hoisted on its own petard. It claimed that the employee abandoned her job (which the Court rejected), so it cannot consistently claim that she was fired for making a request for an accommodation.

Posted in Case Results, Pregnancy Discrimination, Wrongful Termination | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Reporting a Fact is Never Defamatory

It 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.

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.

Posted in Case Results, Defamation, Libel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

California Court of Appeal Rejects “Multi-Tasking” Argument for Exempt Employees

An interesting case involving the Safeway grocery chain could have some far reaching ramifications for California employers.

First a little law. In California, a manager can be exempt from overtime pay, so long as the manager is “primarily engaged” in managerial duties. As was the case many years ago when I worked at a grocery store, managers typically do far more than manage. This case shows little has changed, and the plaintiff, Linda Heyen, when promoted to assistant manager, continued to do all the things she had done before she was promoted, but with added supervisory duties. So, when Heyen was fired, she sued, claiming that she should not have been treated as an exempt employee and was entitled to overtime pay.

Safeway argued that Heyen was properly categorized as exempt, because she was primarily engaged in managerial duties, regardless of what she was doing. When she was stocking shelves, she was still supervising the other employees. When she was running the register, she was still supervising other employees. Here is the claim by Safeway:

Safeway urges that store managers such as Heyen necessarily “multi-task” by engaging in “exempt” and “nonexempt” activities at the same time. In other words, while Heyen and other managers “might be checking and bagging (or doing stock work) they were also always still managing the store operations, including engaging in activities such as observing store operations and employee activities, and instructing employees in their assignments and any corrective measures that needed to be taken.” By instructing the jury that it must determine whether an activity was “exempt” or “nonexempt” based on the primary purpose for which Heyen undertook it, the court “effectively [read] the concept of concurrent duties almost out of existence.” Instead, Safeway suggests, the trial court should have instructed the jury that any time Heyen spent simultaneously performing “exempt” and “nonexempt” duties “should be considered to fall on the `exempt’ side of the ledger.”

Here is how the Court of Appeal responded to that argument:

Although there is some intuitive appeal to Safeway’s contention, it is unsupported by California law. As we have said, the federal regulations cited in Wage Order 7 expressly recognize that managers sometimes engage in tasks that do not involve the “actual management of the department [or] the supervision of the employees therein.” (§ 541.108(a).) In those circumstances, the regulations do not say, as Safeway would have us hold, that those tasks should be considered “exempt” so long as the manager continues to supervise while performing them. Instead, the regulations look to the supervisor’s reason or purpose for undertaking the task. If a task is performed because it is “helpful in supervising the employees or contribute[s] to the smooth functioning of the department for which [the supervisors] are responsible” (§ 541.108(a), (c)), the work is exempt; if not, it is nonexempt.

Thus, the federal regulations incorporated into Wage Order 7 do not support the “multi-tasking” standard proposed by Safeway. Instead, they suggest, as the trial court correctly instructed the jury, that the trier of fact must categorize tasks as either “exempt” or “nonexempt” based on the purpose for which Heyen undertook them.

The lesson here for employers is that you don’t get to create exempt employees with a change in title, unless that employee really does become a manager performing primarily managerial duties. From the employee’s perspective, if you get a promotion to manager, but find yourself still performing the same duties, then you are probably entitled to overtime pay.

Posted in Wrongful Termination | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Not Defamation if No One Knows it’s You

Sammy Hagar BookAs the old saying goes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?* In the context of defamation law, the saying could be, “if no one knows it’s you, is the statement still defamatory?” The answer is no.

I get a surprising number of calls like this. Now that anyone can publish a book with a few mouse clicks, more people are publishing their life stories, and those stories always manage to irritate someone. That someone then calls me, stating that some person in the book is them, and they want to sue for defamation. They go on to explain that the name given is not theirs, that the geographic location given is someplace they have never lived or visited, and the gender has been changed, but they know it’s them and damn it they want to sue. In some cases it is clear that the caller made the whole thing up in their mind, but in other cases it is clear that the person referenced really is the caller. Even so, if the author changed the identity so much that no one would recognize them, there is no case.

Today’s example involves rocker Sammy Hagar. He wrote a book called “Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock“, which tells a story of a woman he had sex with following a concert, who later claimed to be pregnant.  He explains that he paid her some support during the alleged pregnancy, but that no child was ever born and he now thinks the entire thing was simple extortion. Had he named her, that would have supported a claim for defamation since he accuses her of a criminal act, but she is identified only as a “Playboy bunny from California”. Apparently the woman in question was a Playboy bunny, but Hagar changed the state from Michigan to California, perhaps specifically to make her less identifiable.

Nonetheless, the still unidentified “Playboy bunny from California” sued Hagar for defamation and infliction of emotional distress. Not surprisingly, the trial court today threw out the case.

U.S. District Court Judge Linda Reade ruled that Hagar did not defame the woman because he did not refer to her by name in the book – identifying her erroneously as a “Playboy bunny from California” – and the woman did not prove she suffered any financial, reputational or emotional injuries from his statements. Only individuals who already knew about their relationship, not the general public, would have understood Hagar was referring to her in the book, she added.

Although Hagar’s statements in ‘Red’ brought back painful memories for Doe, the evidence does not support a finding that Hagar’s conduct was extreme enough to permit the court to find outrageous conduct sufficient to support Doe’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, Reade wrote.

 

* It’s a deep thought, but I’ve always thought it was kind of silly because of course a falling tree makes a sound. The laws of physics don’t stop just because no one is there.

Posted in Case Results, Defamation, Internet Defamation, Libel, Verdicts | Tagged , , | Leave a comment