Picture this: You are the owner of a company and a former customer writes a review online saying that the product your company sells is defective, your company is a scam, and you are a crook with a criminal record. None of this is true. Do you have a cause of action for defamation? Trade libel? Both?
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...
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...
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.
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...
Online News Sources Have Standing to Protect Free Speech Rights for Anonymous Users, According to New Jersey Appellate Division
Online newspapers, internet service providers, and website hosts have standing to assert the constitutional rights of their users, according to the New Jersey Appellate Division’s recent unpublished decision in Trawinski v. Doe. In Trawinski, the Appellate Division affirmed the denial of a plaintiff’s request for a subpoena requiring NJ.com to disclose the identity of an anonymous commenter. Underlying plaintiff’s request were allegedly defamatory remarks made by an anonymous poster using the screen name “EPLifer2” concerning plaintiff and her husband, a borough council member of Elmwood Park.
In Refusing to Review Order Requiring Disclosure of Identities of Anonymous Internet Commentators, Pennsylvania Court Finds No Protectable First Amendment Interest in Maintaining Anonymity When One Comments Under Name of Real Person
In Amerisource Bergen Corporation v. John Does 1 and 2, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently held that two individuals who posted false and non-satirical comments to an online article under the name of an executive mentioned in the article had no protectable interest in their identities sufficient to invoke the collateral order doctrine and permit appellate review of a trial court order granting pre-complaint discovery of their identities, thus allowing an executive and his company to pursue claims against the posters for their unlawful appropriation of the executive’s name.
On May 21, 2012, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a corrected Opinion in W.J.A. v. D.A.. In that Opinion, the Court held that presumed damages continue to play a role in New Jersey’s defamation jurisprudence in private plaintiff cases that do not involve matters of public concern. Where a plaintiff does not proffer any evidence of actual damage to reputation, the doctrine of presumed damages permits him/her to survive a motion for summary judgment and to obtain nominal damages if successful at trial. The Court emphasized, however, that in order to receive compensatory damages, a plaintiff must prove actual harm to his/her reputation.
In Durando v. The Nutley Sun, the New Jersey Supreme Court confirmed that — absent clear and convincing evidence of actual malice — an admittedly incorrect “teaser headline” that refers readers to an accurate headline and story cannot be the basis of a defamation claim where a public figure or matter of public concern is at issue. By strictly adhering to this actual malice standard, the Court has reaffirmed the commitment of this State to protect speech regarding public figures and public matters, even erroneous speech, from the expense and chill of protracted litigation, by disposition of lawsuits at the summary judgment stage.