Tweeted Article About Law Grad’s Suit Over Stalking Investigation Isn’t Defamatory
This is a defamation lawsuit brought by a law grad (Enjaian) against the legal press based on a story involving Enjaian’s own (personal) legal matter. (I blogged about the most recent example here: “Legal Blog Faces Defamation Liability for Mischaracterizing Prior Legal Proceedings–Huon v. Above the Law.”) Jesse Enjaian sued National Law Journal’s publisher, editor-in-chief and reporter for an article (which was linked in a tweet) titled: “Law School Alum, Accused of Stalking, Loses Suit Against U. Michigan”. His complaint? He wasn’t formally charged, and NLJs use of the word “accused” wrongly conveyed that he was. Among other things, in his complaint he requested that NLJ be forced to tweet an apology.
Defendants brought an anti-SLAPP motion under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, and the court grants it:
Plaintiff alleges that defendants’ use of the term “accused” was false, because he was never formally charged with a crime. The court disagrees that the word “accused” carries the connotation of a formal criminal charge. Webster’s dictionary definition (cited by plaintiff in the FAC) defines “accuse” as “to blame (someone) for something wrong or illegal” or “to say that someone is guilty of a fault or crime.” While the term “accuse” may also be used in the context of a formal indictment, the court disagrees that a reasonable reader would interpret “accuse” to mean “formally charge.” . . . In fact, the court notes that plaintiff’s own complaint uses the term “accusation” to refer to something less than a criminal charge. See FAC, ¶ 20 (prayer for relief asking that defendants be required to publish an apology “for the wrongful accusation and publish a ‘tweet’ apologizing for the wrongful accusation.”) (emphasis added).
While plaintiff’s complaint alleges that the term “accused” was the only false statement in the article, plaintiff argued at the hearing that the phrase “[h]e claimed officers kept the items for 446 days but never charged him with a crime” was false, because it implies that there is a dispute as to whether plaintiff was ever charged with a crime. The court disagrees, as the challenged statement merely reports the substance of plaintiff’s own claim, and does not state or imply anything about its truth or falsity.
Thus, even if the court were to assume that defendants’ statements were unprivileged, plaintiff has not demonstrated a probability of prevailing on his claim that defendants’ statements were false, and therefore constituted defamation.
Alternatively, the court holds that defendants’ article and tweet are privileged under California Civil Code section 47(d).
Ouch, not only does plaintiff’s litigation fail to achieve the desired apology and retraction tweet, he is now on the hook for defendants’ attorneys’ fees. [UPDATE: see below.] The result may be a testament to the efficacy of California’s anti-SLAPP statute, although perhaps the lawsuit would have been dismissed even without it. As noted in the article that was the subject of this lawsuit, Enjaian brought a suit over the stalking accusation, and that suit was dismissed also. I wonder about the possible Streisand effect of lawsuits by lawyers or law graduates against the legal media, but they don’t seem to be much of a deterrent to plaintiffs.
Worth noting: a quick Lexis search indicates that this appears to be the first time a court has held that section 47(d)–which applies to “fair and true” report in a “public journal”–potentially covers material in a tweet.
UPDATE: I mentioned above that Enjaian “is now on the hook for attorneys’ fees.” He would have been, but in between the court’s ruling and defendants’ deadline to file their request for fees, the parties settled (he gave up his right to appeal and defendants waived their right to request fees). Thanks to Enjaian for flagging this for me. Also, at Enjaian’s request, I made a slight revision to the post, including the title.
Case citation: Enjaian v. ALM Media Props., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177032 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 23, 2014)