Author: Nomi I. Lowy

Is “Per Se” Getting in the Way? Use of That Term in Defamation Law

The twin branches of defamation consist of libel and slander. Libel is defamation by written words or by the embodiment of the communication in some tangible or physical form. Slander consists of the communication of a defamatory statement by spoken words or transitory gestures. Although attorneys, and even courts, sometimes refer to “defamation per se” as a third category of defamation, such reference is incorrect as it misunderstands the term “per se” in the defamation context. Properly understood in the context of slander, the phrase “per se” refers to four highly specific accusations that have traditionally been considered so clearly damaging to reputation that the damage element of the tort is deemed satisfied by the very utterance of the words: (1) accusing another of having committed a criminal offense (2) accusing another of having a loathsome disease (3) accusing another in a way that affects his/her business, trade, profession, or office (4) accusing a woman of being unchaste As to categories (3) and (4), the New Jersey Appellate Division later recharacterized them, respectively, as “accusing another of engaging in conduct, or having a condition or trait, incompatible with his or her business” and “accusing another of having engaged in serious sexual misconduct.” In the context of libel, “per se” refers to a writing that is...

New Jersey Enacts Anti-SLAPP Legislation

Lawsuits filed to intimidate or punish those who are engaged in constitutionally protected activity by, in effect, suing them into submission or silence through the prospect of expensive and time-consuming litigation are commonly referred to as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). On September 7, 2023, Governor Murphy signed New Jersey’s first anti-SLAPP legislation, which is designed to thwart such lawsuits by providing a process for early dismissal of these suits and an award of costs and counsel fees to a prevailing moving party. New Jersey now joins 32 other states that have enacted some form of anti-SLAPP legislation. The legislation applies to a civil cause of action against a person based on the person’s: (1) communications during a legislative, executive, judicial, administrative, or other governmental proceeding; (2) communications on an issue under consideration or review by such a body; or (3) engagement in any other activity that is protected by the First Amendment freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution or New Jersey Constitution and that relates to a matter of public concern. Modeled after the Uniform Public Expression Protection Act (UPEPA), the New Jersey legislation: permits a SLAPP defendant to file an early application for an order to show cause to dismiss the cause of action in whole or in part establishes a...

An Anti-SLAPP Bill That Packs a Powerful Punch

Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) are lawsuits intended to intimidate or punish those engaged in constitutionally protected activity by, essentially, suing them into submission or silence through the prospect of costly and time-consuming litigation. Thirty-two states have enacted some form of anti-SLAPP legislation designed to weed out these cases and, in most instances, provide for dismissal of such actions early in the process. New Jersey is not one of those states. That may soon change. State Senate Bill S2802, the Uniform Public Expression Protection Act (the “Act”), and its Assembly counterpart, A4393, were introduced in June 2022 and provide an expedited process for dismissal of SLAPP actions. The legislation is modeled after the Uniform Public Expression Protection Act (UPEPA) drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and approved and recommended by it in 2020 for enactment in all states. The Act would apply to a civil cause of action against a person based on the person’s (1) communications during a legislative, executive, judicial, administrative, or other governmental proceeding; (2) communications on an issue under consideration or review by such a body; or (3) engagement in any other activity that is protected by the First Amendment freedoms guaranteed by the United State Constitution or New Jersey Constitution and that relates to...

NJ Supreme Court to Decide Whether Counsel Fees Are to Be Awarded to a Prevailing Requestor of Government Records Under the Common Law

New Jersey provides a statutory and common law right of access to government records. While New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA), the statutory right of access, expressly mandates an award of counsel fees to a prevailing requestor, there has been some confusion among New Jersey courts, based upon the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Mason v. City of Hoboken, as to whether there is a corresponding right to an award of counsel fees to a prevailing common law requestor. The New Jersey Supreme Court has recently granted certification on this issue and will now have the opportunity to unequivocally clarify the right of a prevailing common law requestor to recover the attorney’s fees incurred in challenging a wrongful denial of access. The case before the Supreme Court involves a request by the Asbury Park Press for access to the internal affairs file of a Township of Neptune police sergeant who chased down his ex-wife’s car and executed her with his service revolver in the summer of 2015. That internal affairs file contained more than 25 reports for a host of incidents, including domestic violence and assaultive behavior on the job. There was, understandably, strong public outcry over the horrific event, and the Asbury Park Press sought information about the sergeant’s internal affairs history...

Instruction on Nominal Damages Was Anything but Instructive as Jury Returns $800,000 “Nominal” Damage Award

In its recent opinion in Graphnet, Inc. v. Retarus, Inc., the New Jersey Supreme Court revisited the role of nominal damages in the defamation context. This time, the issue arose after trial in connection with a jury instruction that advised the jury, in part, that it may award nominal damages to compensate a plaintiff for injury to reputation caused by a defendant’s defamation. In 2014 defendant Retarus published a brochure that contained allegedly defamatory statements about one of its competitors, plaintiff Graphnet. The jury found that Retarus did defame Graphnet but that Graphnet had not shown any actual loss. The jury, nonetheless, awarded Graphnet $800,000 in nominal damages. This exorbitant nominal damage award was, at least in part, the result of a confusing and contradictory jury instruction, which advised the jury both that it was “permitted to award nominal damages to compensate the plaintiff” and that “[n]ominal damages…are not designed to compensate a plaintiff.” Only the latter part of that instruction is correct. Nominal damages, as distinct from compensatory or actual damages, are not meant to compensate the plaintiff for actual loss. Rather, they serve the purpose of vindicating the character of a plaintiff who has not proved a compensable loss. Nuwave Inv. Corp. v. Hyman Beck & Co., Inc., 221 N.J. 495, 499 (2015)....

“Public Figure” Status in the Age of Social Media: A Second Supreme Court Justice Calls for Review of the New York Times v. Sullivan Actual Malice Standard

United States Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, dissenting from the denial of certiorari in Berisha v. Lawson, et al., joined fellow Justice Clarence Thomas in questioning the appropriateness of the “actual malice” standard, which, under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and its progeny, requires public official and public figure plaintiffs to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that, in publishing material about the plaintiff, the defendant acted with knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth.

Feeling the Chill: The Petro Lubricant Decision – Can Correcting an Online Error Hurt You?

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Petro-Lubricant Testing Laboratories, Inc. v. Adelman left unanswered significant questions as to what constitutes a republication when corrections or modifications are made to an online publication, thereby retriggering the statute of limitations for defamation. In a 4-3 opinion, the majority established a test for whether a correction or modification is a republication that increases the likelihood that trial courts will deny summary judgment motions, leaving the question of republication for the jury. The practical effect of this will likely be far fewer corrections to online publications for fear of reviving or extending the applicable statute of limitations. Specifically, the majority held that an online article is republished if an author makes a material and substantive change to the original defamatory article. According to the majority: A material change is one that relates to the defamatory content of the article at issue. It is not a technical website modification or the posting on the website of another article with no connection to the original defamatory article. A substantive change is one that alters the meaning of the original defamatory article or is essentially a new defamatory statement incorporated into the original article. It is not the mere reconfiguring of sentences or substitution of words that are not susceptible of...

Law Division Holds Unfiled Discovery Protected From Common-Law Right of Access

The Law Division in a to-be-published opinion in Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP v. New Jersey Department of Law & Public Safety, Division of Law, recently held that public policy does not favor access to unfiled discovery in public sector litigation under New Jersey’s common-law right of access. Plaintiff filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs for failure to comply with the Open Public Records Act, (“OPRA”), and the common-law right of access in refusing to provide plaintiff with copies of unfiled transcripts of expert depositions in environmental litigation brought by the State of New Jersey, Department of Environmental Protection (“NJDEP”). Because the transcripts in their entirety had not been filed with the Court, NJDEP denied plaintiff’s OPRA request on privilege and confidentiality grounds.

Recent Developments Under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act

New Jersey courts decided a trio of cases last month that shine a spotlight on the State’s Open Public Records Act (“OPRA”), which governs the disclosure of government records when requested by members of the public. These opinions — the holdings of which are summarized below — serve as important guideposts for practitioners litigating OPRA-related matters.