In this comprehensive blog post and guide, we’re going to walk you through how to file an Internet defamation lawsuit, several important cases to note, pre-lawsuit requirements and considerations, the fundamentals of a complaint and what to include in it, and common defenses to Internet defamation lawsuits.
- To file an effective Internet defamation lawsuit, there’s numerous considerations you should take into consideration, as United States defamation law is a highly nuanced and evolving area of law. When wondering where to start with filing an Internet defamation lawsuit, we recognize you focus on three fundamental things; (1) Do not draw more unwanted attention to your client’s case, personal information, and the defamatory/libelous content at issue, (2) Make sure you follow all legal procedures and requirements as to not have your client’s case dismissed or thrown out altogether, and (3) Strive for obtaining adequate relief and results for your client.
- Before filing an Internet defamation lawsuit, there’s one extremely important pre-suit requirement a filing party needs to be aware of, specifically; notice. Most states require a party to provide notice to the author of the defamatory content in question (even if anonymous) requesting the remediation or retraction of said content. Oftentimes, should a party fail to request a retraction or correction of libelous content, they will be precluded from recovering punitive damages.
- When drafting an Internet defamation complaint, it’s generally wise to err towards putting as few details and specific pieces of information as possible. Simply put, Internet defamation complaints should be dull and dry, void of salacious details and private information, and free from large damages sums requested. Furthermore, it’s extremely important to (a) identify the proper jurisdiction in which to file an online defamation lawsuit, (b) refrain from including unnecessary claims, (c) consider whether to request/opt out of a jury, and (d) familiarize yourself with any relevant miscellaneous pleading requirements and nuances.
Internet Defamation Removal Tip: In order to secure and monitor your online reputation and presence, we recommended setting up Google Alerts. Online defamation is like a wildfire, and the longer you let it sit and spread, the more damage it’s going to do to your reputation. Google Alerts is a great way to monitor your online presence and receive notifications anytime your name is mentioned online.
If you’ve been the victim of Internet defamation and libelous attacks and want to explore your legal options, contact the online defamation removal lawyers of Minc Law today! At Minc Law, we know the ins and outs of United States defamation and libel law, and have litigated in over 22 states and 3 countries in our storied tenure.
We’ve worked tirelessly with countless website administrators, online content managers, and third-party arbitration firms to secure swift and effective online takedowns. Furthermore, we’ve secured the effective and permanent removal of over 25,000 pieces of false and libelous content/websites, support a nearly 100% online defamation takedown and removal rate, and we do it all for a flat, reasonable fee.
We’re here to fight for your reputation.
Table of Contents
- The Facts: Filing an Internet Defamation Lawsuit
- What is the Streisand Effect & How Can I Avoid It?
- Internet Defamation Pre-Suit Requirements
- What to Include in Your Complaint & Pleading Technicalities
- Common Defenses to Internet Defamation Lawsuits
- Work With the Internet Defamation Removal Attorneys of Minc Law Today!
The Facts: Filing an Internet Defamation Lawsuit
Filing an Internet defamation lawsuit is so much more than just putting pen to paper and ticking the boxes of a complaint – the first formal action taken to begin a civil lawsuit (Federal Rules of Civil Procedure) – as United States defamation and libel law is highly nuanced, and filled with countless twists and turns.
One slip up, or unanticipated strategic consideration, before your suit is filed, could mean the difference between:
- Drawing more unwanted attention to your client’s personal information and the defamatory/libelous content at issue (also known as the ‘Streisand Effect’),
- Having your case thrown out or dismissed altogether, or
- Obtaining inadequate relief and results for your client – if the content ultimately is not removed.
It’s extremely important to tread carefully and enter the online defamation arena with a calculated and comprehensive removal gameplan – for you and your client’s sake.
In this post, we’re going to walk you through the fundamental considerations you should be double-checking and including in your Complaint to avoid the ‘Streisand Effect’ and having your case dismissed or thrown out altogether. This post does not cover the following:
- How to draft a complaint,
- Alternative claims and causes of action to defamation,
- In depth analysis about jurisdiction and where to file an Internet defamation lawsuit.
Now, let’s get started with the first point, how to avoid drawing unwanted attention to your client’s personal information and the defamatory/libelous content at issue.
Online Defamation Law Fact: United States defamation law is generally considered more defendant friendly due to its longstanding enforcement of the First Amendment and Free Speech, as opposed to other Common Law (United Kingdom, Australia, Canada) and European jurisdictions, which are typically considered more plaintiff-friendly.
What is the Streisand Effect & How Can I Avoid It?
Before we dive into which factors an Internet defamation attorney should consider before filing an Internet defamation lawsuit, let’s take a look at what the ‘Streisand Effect’ is. The Streisand Effect, also known as the Barbra Streisand Effect, was a 2003 instance where Barbra Streisand sought to suppress aerial photographs of her Malibu home. She sued photographer Kenneth Adelman and the website and photo sharing site ‘Pictopia.com’ for violation of privacy.
However, the funny thing about the photograph of Streisand’s Malibu home was that it had only actually been downloaded six (that’s right, six!) times – two of which were from Streisand’s attorneys. Well, what began as an attempt at suppression of personal and private details, turned into a national media circus, and national media attention was soon to follow.
Ultimately, Barbra Streisand ended up accomplishing the opposite of what she wanted, with the photograph being viewed over 420,000 times the following month. The lawsuit was dismissed, and Streisand was ordered to pay Kenneth Adelman’s (the photographer) legal fees, which amounted to roughly USD $150,000.
The Streisand Effect has since manifested itself in countless other instances since, including:
- Cease and desist cases to suppress sensitive files,
- Content on websites,
- Phone numbers – and of course,
- Internet defamation.
Let’s take a look at three notable cases where the Streisand Effect has occurred in the United States and took effect, and what we can learn from them.
Casey Movers v. Yelp & Unintended Airing of Dirty Laundry
In 2012, Casey Movers – a Boston moving company – threatened to sue a woman for libel after they received a negative Yelp review. The problem was Casey Movers didn’t end up responding to the review until 18 months after its date of publish, and they responded in a highly unprofessional, threatening manner. Lawyers failed to address complaints, allegations, and concerns of the client, and it appeared they were intent on steamrolling woman who posted the review.
Following the threat of litigation, the woman’s husband wrote a blog post about the ordeal, which was then picked up by the Consumerist and TechDirt – two prominent online publications boasting six-figure traffic per month. Her husband posted all communications with Casey Movers, and then started analyzing and contacting past positive reviews and customers. It them came to light that there were several privacy violations in Casey Mover’s past.
Less than one week later, Casey Movers was reviewed by the Better Business Bureau and had their accreditation revoked. Plus their dirty laundry was aired to whole of the Internet.
What We Can Learn From Casey Movers & Yelp
There’s several key takeaways an Internet lawyers should note from Casey Movers, including:
- Communications and claims need to properly address the other side of the coin,
- Intimidation and threats can ultimately lead down an unfavorable rabbit hole for your client (ex. The husband’s analyzing of past reviews and BBB investigation),
- Aggressive representation is allowed, however you should keep it professional and classy, and
- Consider if there’s public evidence that can be used against your client or thrown in your face on rebuttal.
Threatening to sue persons can sometimes just make them angrier or defensive, so make sure when employing aggressive representation that you do so in a professional manner.
Now, let’s turn to our second case – which involves the well known exploding Samsung Galaxy phones back in 2013.
Samsung Exploding Phones & Confidentiality Agreement
Everyone knows (or should know) of the exploding Samsung phone fiasco which took the smartphone world by storm in 2013 and for years to come. In 2013, a YouTuber uploaded proof of the Samsung Galaxy catching fire. Samsung responded and demanded proof before honoring their warranty offered on the phone.
Following a back and forth with the YouTuber, Samsung ended up in a settlement with him, requiring that he never make the terms of the settlement public and remove his YouTube video. Well, that backfired, and the YouTuber shared the settlement proposal online, with his video garnering over 1.2 million views the next week.
What We Can Learn From Samsung
At its very simplest, when contemplating an Internet defamation lawsuit, before careful what you send to people and the opposing party. It’s important to understand that there’s always potential for it to go online – especially in today’s digital age.
Make sure to confirm confidentiality if there’s a settlement, otherwise you could end up like Samsung and having the settlement’s terms broadcast to a larger audience. Or, be ok with the settlement if it is tied to communications that will ultimately benefit your client. And finally, make sure not to anger the opposing party.
As the old saying goes, “If you back a dog into a corner, it’s going to bite.” Unfortunately, when you anger the opposing party, it’s your client who suffers, and potentially ends up being “Streisand’ed.”
UC Davis Pepper Spray Incident & Paid Online Content Removals
In 2016, 5 years after the infamous 2011 UC Davis pepper spray incident during an Occupy movement demonstration, UC Davis officials and Chancellor sought to scrub the Internet of their involvement. UC Davis officials and the Chancellor paid roughly USD $200,00 to have stories and information removed from various websites online.
News of such payments to scrub the Internet quickly surfaced and were made public, and the UC Davis Chancellor was subsequently removed from her post and placed on administrative leave – pending an investigation into violations of university policies.
What We Can Learn From the UC Davis Pepper Spray Incident
First and foremost, consider if your client is a public or private individual or business/institution and how discoverable their actions are. If there’s a damning paper trail left behind by your client, there’s a good chance it could come back to bite them in the butt.
And, the cleanup of such blowback could actually be worse than the incident itself (if handled improperly). The cover-up is often worse than the crime, so be careful of who you represent and make sure to dig into any relevant details which may later emerge before proceeding.
A Recap: How to Avoid the Streisand Effect
Simply put, frivolous and meritless cease and desists and lawsuits can increase the likelihood of the Streisand Effect happening and your client being “Streisand’ed.” To recap, always make sure to:
- Narrow the scope of claims and parties,
- Draft something you’ll be OK with and doesn’t make the client look bad,
- Don’t cross the line from aggressive representation to bully,
- Seek confidentiality when applicable,
- Don’t poke the bear if your client has a public trail of evidence that can be used against them.
The more meritorious your lawsuit, the less likely the Streisand Effect will occur. Finally, it bears repeating, know your audience. Understand the website or ISP where the defamation and malicious content was posted and make sure to ask yourself if there have been any past cases where the website/ISP in question publicized requests to have material taken down? Some websites actually revel in the thought of Internet defamation suits and cease and desists, and will publish cease and desists and other letters sent to them by attorneys and innocent persons seeking removal.
Simply put, certain forums, websites, and users are more likely to give rise to the ‘Streisand Effect.’
The Public Court of the Internet
It’s extremely important to be mindful of the persons you are going after and your claims. Specifically, when bringing an Internet defamation lawsuit, you should keep the following in mind:
- Do not argue “everything under the kitchen sink,”
- Define the proper scope of the content and make sure to sift through the actionable and non actionable claims (failing to do so may make you and your firm look like a bully, and does not sit well with the court of public opinion),
- Try to understand the type of website, bulletin board, or forum in question – for example, Reddit bills itself as the “Front Page of the Internet,” so the potential to go viral is all too much of a reality.
All of the above three reasons are potential reasons you may end being being “Streisand’ed,” so remember to weigh the above considerations before proceeding with an Internet defamation suit.
For example, CheaterLand.com’s website and ‘Contact Us’ page states: “If you threaten us or our service providers, the post will remain on the site for eternity, no matter what…In other words, your threats will cause your name to appear in another site, it’s what some call backfire. Don’t be stupid, you won’t scare us.”
If a website, forum, or bulletin board is explicit about their aggressive stance towards combating cease and desists and defamation takedowns, make sure to proceed with caution.
Now, let’s turn to several pre-lawsuit requirements an Internet defamation attorney should consider before filing an online defamation lawsuit.
Online Defamation Removal Fact: If you’ve been the victim of online defamation (or your client has), it’s extremely important to preserve the evidence. The Internet is constantly evolving and changing, and it can sometimes be difficult to locate materials once they are moved or hidden elsewhere. We recommend screenshotting the offending material, and having a trusted friend or family member taking accompanying screenshots. Doing so is an effective way to combat any arguments from the opposing side that you tampered with the evidence.
Internet Defamation Pre-Suit Requirements
Before filing an Internet defamation lawsuit, it’s absolutely essential that you reference your respective state’s laws to check for any issues, booby traps, and certain nuances to look out for. Head on over to our comprehensive and interactive United States defamation and libel law map, where you can find specific defamation laws, concepts, and nuances you should be careful of when filing an Internet defamation lawsuit. We also recommend to paying attention to local filing rules and procedures as well. Does your state have any specific pre-suit requirements for filing? Make sure to tick that box before proceeding.
Note that we will address pre-suit requirements in the context of common defenses at the very end of this post.
First, let’s get into what one needs to consider before filing a lawsuit, as you’ll need to meet certain requirements, specifically; Notice!
Pre-Suit Requirements & Notice
Some states, such as Florida, Texas, and countless others have requirements that a party must give notice or give the author of a defamatory piece of content a chance to remediate or retract the publication before proceeding.
Florida Pre-Suit Requirement Statute & Example
For example, Florida Statute Section 770.01 requires as a prerequisite to an Internet defamation suit and “any civil action… for publication or broadcast, in a newspaper, periodical, or other medium…” is the service of a written notice upon the defendant specifying the article or broad case and the statements alleged to be dismissed.
Failure to comply with Florida’s requisite notice statute may result in a mandated dismissal for attorneys and their clients. Furthermore, the notice must be served at least five days to the institution of a legal action. Do note that this statute does not apply to non-media defendants, and that when sending notice, notice must be sent in “the best possible” way.
So, what happens if an offending party and potential defamation defendant complies?
A good faith publication of the material, together with a correction, apology, or retraction, which is published within 10 days of receipt of the required notice, limits the plaintiff’s recovery to “actual damages,” which simply refer to damages that have actually occurred.
Now, let’s turn to Texas and their defamation mitigation act.
Texas Defamation Mitigation Act
The Texas Defamation Mitigation provides for detailed “correction, retraction or clarification” procedures of defamatory and libelous content, with specific deadlines, for both publishers and potential plaintiffs.
Specifically, under the Texas Defamation Mitigation Act, “A person cannot maintain an action for relief, however characterized, for damages for harm to personal reputation caused by the false content of a publication without making a timely and sufficient request for correction, clarification or retraction from the defendant.”
It’s important to emphasize that the request must be both timely AND sufficient.
Furthermore, the Act provides for abatement of an action where a plaintiff has not requested a correction pursuant to the Act. The act also provides that exemplary damages (also known as punitive damages), may not be recovered where there was no request for a correction within 90 days after the plaintiff receives knowledge of the publication.
Finally, exemplary damages may not be recovered if the plaintiff fails to timely provide evidence of falsity upon the publisher’s request pursuant to the Act, or if the publisher makes a correction in accordance with the terms of the Act, unless the publication was made with actual malice.
Now, let’s turn to our last example of notice statutes, and take a look at Michigan’s notice statute.
Michigan’s Notice Statute For Internet Defamation Lawsuits
Under Michigan’s notice statute, “A plaintiff must have made reasonable efforts to provide the anonymous commenter with reasonable notice that he or she is the subject of a subpoena or motion seeking disclosure of the commenter’s identity.” However, that’s not all… the statute continues with, “the plaintiff’s claims must be evaluated by the court so that a determination is made as to whether the claims are sufficient to survive a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(8).” Ghanam v. Does, 845 N.W.2d 128, 141 (2014).
Note that summary disposition may occur when a party fails to state a claim, or there’s no genuine issue of material fact.
In Michigan libel lawsuits, plaintiffs cannot recover exemplary (punitive) damages unless a retraction is first requested, and a publication of a retraction or correction will be enough to constitute evidence of good faith – and used in court to mitigate exemplary or punitive damages. MCLA 600.2911 and MSA 27A.2911.
Regardless of whether a notice is required or not, notice and a request for a retraction, and the response or lack thereof is evidence of intent. And, even if there isn’t a correction in some states, a formal retraction request and response can limit damages.
You can read about the competing opinions on whether this statute is a positive step in the right direction for identifying anonymous persons online, or a setback for anonymous free speech, in our past blog post.
Now that we’ve touched on one of the most important pre-suit requirements for Internet defamation lawsuits, let’s turn to what you should include in your complaint and several pleading technicalities.
Libel Removal Tip: Persons who commit defamation may commonly be referred to as defamers, libelers (for written defamation), slanderers (for spoken defamation), and in rare cases, famacide (a rather archaic term for a person who “destroys” another person’s reputation. Furthermore, defamation may also be referred to as vilification, traducement, and character assassination. Do note that “disparagement” is a misnomer, and applies to a person or company’s financial and proprietary rights which have been harmed, rather than their reputation.
What to Include in Your Complaint & Pleading Technicalities
Let’s start with the number one rule when it comes to drafting your complaint – generally, err towards putting as few details and specific pieces of information in complaints as possible.
Simply put, complaints should be as dry and dull as possible, and make sure to avoid salacious details and private information. Also, make sure not to request a large sum of money, or do anything that might make the case more interesting/draw unwanted attention to it. Do understand that certain states have stricter pleading technicalities to follow (ex. Specificity, plausibility, and other procedural requirements), so it’s not always as easy as keeping it “dry” and “dull.”
Some other strict pleading requirements for defamation in U.S. states include: pre-suit notice requirements, verbatim allegations of defamation, and special damages.
So, why are we looking to plead less in Internet defamation complaints?
Why We Plead Less & How to Implement the Rule
Simply put, we plead less in Internet defamation complaints for several fundamental reasons:
- Doing so decreases the chances of news and media coverage,
- It prevents and decreases the chances of republication, and
- It serves the goals of the representation.
There’s several ways we can implement this rule and ensure that the goals of the representation are served fully and competently.
- Do not attach the publication as an exhibit.
- Generalize allegations, rather than quote the material.
- File in state, rather than in federal court.
- Plead only required minimums for damages.
- Avoid jurisdictions that would invite news coverage, attention, scrutiny, or that you know of put pleadings online.
There are however several exceptions where you may not plead less. Let’s take a look at the three exceptions that you should be aware of.
- In situations where you are required to plead more by rule,
- When the Complaint is for a contested case with a known defendant, and
- If you’re intentionally trying to get attention for specific reasons (ex. Combatting a narrative, public relation reasons, etc…)
Let’s turn to an important case that helps illustrate all of the above.
Wender v. Silberling: Make Your Case Well
The facts: Wender was an architect in New York City, while Silberling was an adjunct professor at Cornell. Wender believed that Silberling was behind malicious online harassment and defamation. And, we’re talking extremely salacious and over the line content and allegations. New York law requires heightened pleadings – meaning that actual details were very important and needed to be included.
For example, one of the allegations was that Wender had a micropenis and that he had sexually transmitted diseases. She also labeled him as a “dirty old man.” This was all after just 3 dates. So, of course the allegations were brought to light and made public due to the heightened pleading requirements in New York.
The result: The news coverage in this case was actually better than the defamatory content, which some considered a silver lining of the case. So, it’s important to emphasize – if you have to disclose certain details of your case, make your case well. However, do understand that the media and court of public opinion could take whatever information is provided and spin it in a less than flattering light.
Online Defamation Fact: A lot of people often confuse the tort of disparagement and the tort of defamation. While they may seem similar, the tort of defamation concerns itself with damage to a third party’s reputation, while the tort of disparagement (also known as business/commercial disparagement) concerns itself with damage to a person or entity’s proprietary and financial rights.
Now, let’s turn to the fundamental of an Internet defamation complaint and several important considerations and questions to ask yourself.
Fundamentals of an Internet Defamation Complaint
Below are the fundamentals of a complaint that we are going to walk you through:
- Jurisdiction & Venue
- Factual Allegations
- Claims for Relief
- Relief Requested Damages & Equitable)
- Request for a Jury
- Miscellaneous Pleading Requirements & Nuances
Let’s first start with the several considerations one should take into account when dealing with the parties.
Parties to an Internet Defamation Lawsuit
The names of the parties in question are extremely important when filing an Internet defamation lawsuit. Simply put, the “caption” of the case matters for privacy reasons.
- Who is the allegedly defamatory and libelous content about? Make sure to narrow down and define the actual victim.
- Are you suing on behalf of your client, their business, or both?
- Are you naming co-conspirators?
- Is the defendant anonymous?
- Are you going to have to file a John Doe action?
Let’s take a look at John Doe actions a little bit more.
John Doe Actions Against Anonymous Defendants
Generally, when dealing with John Doe actions, the best practice is to use an alias or username is a person’s identity is unknown. However, sometimes it’s necessary to plead a website as a party (with no claims against them) and address things in the order to file the John Doe lawsuit.
For example, in past instances in New York, clerks have required the listing of a website as a party, and wouldn’t let us file against an anonymous party otherwise. And, we’ve encountered the same issue in a small county in Ohio, where an address was required for the complaint.
Considerations about filing an Internet defamation lawsuit as an anonymous plaintiff will be discussed further down.
Now, let’s turn to the jurisdiction and venue for bringing one’s online defamation lawsuit.
Jurisdiction & Venue: Questions to Consider
At its very core, you should be asking, “Where should I file the Internet defamation lawsuit?” And, the general rule in most cases is that you’re going to need to file your Internet defamation suit where the defendant is located!
However, with Internet defamation lawsuits, the question of where to a file a lawsuit is rarely straightforward.
To start, ask yourself whether the defendant is known or unknown…In situations where you don’t know who the defendant in question is, then you’ll need to thoroughly consider where the best place to file your lawsuit is for purposes of discovery and relief. If you’re unsure of a defendant’s location, what’s your reasoning for bringing a lawsuit in X state? It needs to be sound.
Jurisdiction Factors to Consider For an Unknown Defamation Defendant
There’s several important factors to consider when a defendant is unknown.
- Where your client suffered the harm in question – Typically, the easiest way to get jurisdiction is if you can establish who saw/possibly saw the defamatory and libelous content in question, and in what jurisdiction.
- Where your client is located.
- Where it’s easiest for your client cost-wise.
- Where the discovery needs to be conducted.
- The sort of relief that you’ll ultimately be requesting.
- Privacy considerations.
Generally, it’s best to approach John Doe lawsuits as two distinct lawsuits:
- Action for discovery purposes,
- Action for relief (post-identification).
Keep in mind that once defendant’s identity is obtained, you can always refile or try and transfer the suit (just make sure it’s in line with the requisite statute of limitations).
Jurisdiction Factors to Consider For a Known Defamation Defendant
When dealing with a known defamation and libel defendant, you should consider the following things:
- Whether the defendant is located in your same state or out-of-state,
- What your state’s laws and long-arm statute governing jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants say about the matter.
Generally, it’s important to look to a defendant’s minimum contacts with the state. For example, whether they directed electronic activity to the state, engaged in business or had other interactions with the state, or if their activity created a potential cause of action (COA) in the state’s courts.
Let’s take a look at several state examples.
Ohio Defamation Law Fact: Defamation per se refers to defamatory statements which are so inherently defamatory and inflammatory, that a libel or slander plaintiff need not prove damages (damages will be presumed). For a statement or communication to be classified as defamation per se in Ohio, it must fit within one of the four categories; (1) The words or statement import a charge of an indictable offense involving infamous punishment or moral turpitude; (2) The words impute some offensive or contagious disease on a person (ex. A sexually transmitted disease); (3) The words tend to injure a person in his occupation or trade; and (4) The words tend to subject a person to public hatred, ridicule, or contempt.
Jurisdiction State Examples For Known Defamation Defendants
|State Examples & Laws For Known Defamation Defendants||Ohio||California||New York|
|Background||Ohio boasts a rather generous long-arm statute solidified under Kauffman Racing Equipment v. Roberts.||California does have jurisdictionover nonresidents/out-of-state defendants who intend to cause a tortious effect within California. However, “merely posting on the Internet, negative comments about the plaintiff and knowing the plaintiff is in the forum state are insufficient” to establish jurisdiction.||New York’s jurisdictional reach is much narrower than other state long-arm statutes.|
|Factors to Consider||Under Kaufman, Ohio courts will have jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants who: post material online that multiple Ohio residents view; that defames plaintiff with Ohio domicile; and such domicile was known by the defendant. The reasoning? Ohio courts “decline to allow a nonresident defendant to take advantage of the conveniences of technology affords and simultaneously be shielded from the consequences of his intentionally tortious conduct.||California generally looks to the “totality of circumstances” when considering jurisdiction (6 factors): Whether the defendant posted material online expressly aimed at/intentionally targeting a California audience; whether multiple California residents view the material; whether the plaintiff is domiciled in California; whether the plaintiff’s domicile was known by the defendant; whether the defendant has real-world contacts in California; and/or whether the plaintiff’s California domicile is not “the only link between the defendant and [California].”||New York will have jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants when the defendant publishes material online, which is based on the transaction of a business. And, when a party engages in business in New York, and subsequently makes a defamatory statement outside of New York regarding that transaction – then, New York may exercise jurisdiction.|
Let’s take a look at the venue in which you should bring your Internet defamation lawsuit against an in-state and out-of-state defamation defendant.
Venue For In-State/Out-of-State Defamation Defendants
Simply put, the question is where (in which venue) can you bring your Internet defamation lawsuit against an in-state and out-of-state defamation defendant?
For example, if the plaintiffs reside in the same state, then the defamation action must be tried in the county in which the plaintiffs or defendants (or any of them) reside at the time of commencement.
And, if none of the defendants are in the same state as the plaintiff, then it may be tried in the county in which the plaintiffs, or any of the plaintiffs, reside. Finally, if none of the parties resident in the state, then the action may be tried in any county which the plaintiff designates in his or her summons/complaint – and ultimately subject to the court in charge of trial and governing statute.
Let’s take a look at several state examples for where venue is proper.
- California: Generally, and except where otherwise prescribed by law, a plaintiff may sue a defendant in the county; where any defendant resides, or where the plaintiff’s injury occurs.
- New York: Generally, except where otherwise prescribed by law, the place of trial shall be in the county in which one of the parties resided when it [the action] commenced. Or, if none of the parties then resided in the state, the place of trial shall be in the county designated by the plaintiff.
Factual Allegations: Remember, Plead Less!
As we’ve stressed above, PLEAD LESS!!!
Avoiding the ‘Barbra Streisand Effect’ is absolutely crucial for ensuring invasive and private matters concerning your client aren’t leaked and spread to the general public. Generally, you’ll need to plead the requirements and elements of a libel or slander claim.
We do recommend paying extra attention to the following certain facts, which should be included in a complaint:
- URL addresses,
Let’s take a look at several state examples and the factual allegations that must be described or included in a complaint.
- New York: When bringing a defamation claim in the state of New York, New York law requires a plaintiff’s complaint to “set forth the particular words allegedly constituting defamation and it must also allege the time when, place where, and the manner in which the false statement was made, and specify to whom it was made.” Epifani v. Johnson, 65 A.D.3d 224, 233, 882 N.Y.S.2d 234 (2d Dept.2009). Simply put, New York requires exact pleadings and attachment of the defamatory content in question.
- Ohio: The Buckeye State (Ohio) has NO special pleading requirements for defamation claims, and plaintiffs need not plead defamatory statements verbatim. Pleadings will be deemed sufficient and adequate as long as they “allege the substance of the allegedly defamatory statements.” Hedrick v. Ctr. for Comprehensive Alcoholism Treatment, 7 Ohio App.3d 211, 215 (1st Dist.1982).
- California: Generally, a California plaintiff’s complaint must plead the exact words of the alleged defamation. However, in certain circumstances, California requires plaintiffs to plead extra requirements.
Claims For Relief: Refrain From Including Unnecessary Claims
The general rule for claims for relief in one’s complaint is that you should be putting in less claims for relief (than more claims).
Furthermore, we recommend you refrain from pleading causes of action in the alternative to defamation, unless they add something new to the table that defamation does not. For example, don’t plead something like tortious interference in addition to defamation, or intentional infliction of emotional distress in addition to defamation.
If, at the end of the day, you’re just addressing the same damages in the same publication, it doesn’t matter how you try and classify it, the court will still always see it as defamation. All of the claims arising out of a publication will rise and fall on a defamation claim – unless there’s something unique and distinct about what you’re trying to argue with the claim.
Simply put, a defamation case is a defamation case – and, that’s the meat and potatoes right there. Don’t waste your time clouding your claim’s legitimacy by including unnecessary claims.
Relief & Requested Damages
Don’t be greedy! The first rule for requesting relief and damages under your complaint is not to plead more than the jurisdictional minimum, unless you’re dealing with a special damages claim. Pleading hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions can draw unwanted attention to your lawsuit. Make sure to the plead the minimum – with the exact amount to be proven.
Do understand that there’s generally special pleading requirements for damages where you do not have a ‘Per Se’ action. Instead, the action is considered ‘Per Quod’. Special damages typically need to be plead with particularity and causation, otherwise you risk having your case dismissed altogether.
Asking for injunctive relief (permanent injunction) is also essential for preventing the spread and subsequent publishings of libelous and false content – this includes the requesting of the removal of content/post, indexing from the search results, and that the defendant will not be able to post the libelous and false content again.
Always make sure to check with local counsel as to whether a request for injunctive relief must be plead separately as a claim/cause of action OR just as one line request. Certain states (for example, Texas) require you to plead injunctive relief as a claim – so it’s not a bad practice to plead separately as a claim, as it can ultimately add emphasis to your overall goals of the lawsuit. Although, if it’s not necessary, then remember to plead less!
Make sure to explore all types of damages available, including:
- Actual damages,
- Special damages,
- Punitive damages,
- Out-of-pocket costs and expenses,
- Lost business,
- Emotional distress and harm in the community, and more!
Let’s take a look at several state examples of what a plaintiff must plead and prove for special damages!
- California: In a per quod action, California plaintiffs and their complaint must plead; (1) special damages, and (2) facts that establish that an average reader would understand the alleged defamatory statements to be defamatory.
- North Carolina: If the publication or communication is defamatory per quod, special damages must be alleged and proved (as defined under law to mean pecuniary loss). Furthermore, the facts giving rise to special damages must be sufficient to inform the defendant of the scope of the plaintiff’s demand – merely alleging “damages” will be considered insufficient to support a libel per quod claim. Finally, allegations of emotional distress and mental suffering are NOT sufficient to establish special damages in per quod cases under North Carolina law.
- New York: Courts have found it necessary for a plaintiff to rely on extrinsic evidence to show defamatory meaning when pleading special damages.
Now, let’s take a look at what a plaintiff must plead and prove for actual damages in the above three states.
- California: California plaintiffs must plead and prove actual injury – and are not limited to out-of-pocket loss, but includes impairment of reputation, personal humiliation, anguish and suffering.
- North Carolina: Under North Carolina law, a plaintiff must include: pecuniary losses, damages for physical pain/inconvenience, mental suffering, and injury to reputation. One cannot merely make “conclusory allegations” of humiliation.
- New York: New York plaintiffs have the burden of establishing actual damages to their reputation (in the absence of actual malice). In pleadings, it will be sufficient to simply allege “damage to their reputation.”
Finally, let’s turn to what a plaintiff must plead and prove for punitive damages in California, North Carolina, and New York.
- California: For punitive damages in California, plaintiffs must show: actual malice and common-law malice.
- North Carolina: Under North Carolina law, punitive damages are not recoverable as a right of law, but in the discretion of the jury. And, they may not be recovered in an excessively disproportionate amount to the circumstances demonstrated. Finally, punitive damages are limited to three times the amount of compensatory damages, or USD $250,000, whichever is greater. To recover, plaintiffs must prove clear and convincing evidence of fraud, common law malice, or willful/wanton conduct by the defendant.
- New York: Plaintiffs must show actual malice and common law malice, or spite and ill-will.
A final reminder is to not plead more than the jurisdictional minimum, unless when dealing with a special damages claim. Always plead the minimum, with the exact amount to be proven.
U.S. Defamation Law Fact: United States defamation and libel law is surprisingly “new,” and was not actually solidified and ruled on definitively until the 1964 landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan. In Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court (for the first time) laid the framework for modern day libel law as we know it, noting that private and public defamation plaintiffs should have differing burdens of proof to meet when bringing a libel action (ordinary negligence for private persons and actual malice for public figures and persons).
Request For a Jury: Should You?
Don’t forget to request/opt out of a jury. The general rule of thumb is: request a jury – however, this should be thought through.
Consider the sophistication of your client. This is ultimately up to you or your client, and should be thought through very carefully.
Miscellaneous Complaint Considerations
Now, let’s take a look at several miscellaneous complaint considerations you should take into account when bringing an Internet defamation lawsuit.
Additional Pleading Requirements & Nuances
There are of course additional pleading requirements and nuances that Internet defamation lawyers should be aware of and brush up on.
For example, under California law, when dealing with absolute and qualified privilege, if a plaintiff’s complaint discloses an absolute or qualified privilege, the complaint must also plead facts to negate such privilege.
And, under New York law, language charging a professional person with ignorance or mistake on a single occasion is not actionable, unless special damages are pleaded.
Finally, under North Carolina law, “In a defamation action, qualified privilege is an affirmative defense. Ordinarily, it must be specially pleaded.”
As mentioned above, anonymous plaintiff filings can be tricky, so let’s dive a bit deeper.
Anonymous Plaintiff Filings
Generally, for most defamation and libel cases, a plaintiff’s request to remain anonymous will be denied. However, it’s still something you should always look to/at.
Specific instances in Internet defamation cases where you should keep your eye out for the possibility of anonymous plaintiff filings include:
- Privacy cases involving nude and non consensual photos,
- Highly embarrassing and disturbing allegations about a private person and private matter,
- Especially egregious and wanton cases,
- High risk of retaliation,
- To prevent highly sensitive information from being leaked or released,
- When no one is opposed to it,
- If case publicity could have a severe negative impact on a person’s life,
- When dealing with a family member of a public person who themselves is NOT a public person (avoid attention by affiliation as it’s not relevant to the case and is unfair to the plaintiff).
Anonymity can be challenged. It’s important to understand that anonymity can be challenged, if the objector furnishes proof that the right to disclosure is more important than privacy.
Let’s take a look at several John Doe Plaintiff state filing examples.
- Georgia: Does not require filings to contain the plaintiff’s name, and they may use a pseudonym.
- Mississippi: Filings must contain names of all the parties (although using one’s first name only is permitted).
- New York & California: Both enable revenge porn victims to file as anonymous plaintiffs.
There are alternatives to anonymous filings as well, such as putting things under seal and in exhibits. Remember, seeking anonymous plaintiff status is generally not a great idea unless there is an extremely important underlying cause. Seeking to keep something under wraps could ultimately bring unwanted attention and publicity (Streisand Effect) if sought and lost or denied.
Finally, let’s turn to our last section, which addresses common defenses to Internet defamation lawsuits that you should be aware of.
United States Libel Removal Fact: The general public often confuses the terms “libel” and “slander.” Mixing up the two could have severe consequences for a person’s defamation claim, and could ultimately lead to it being dismissed or thrown out altogether if you’re not careful. Libel refers to a false written statement (or photograph, video, or media) which causes damage or harm to another person’s reputation, while slander refers to a false spoken statement.
Common Defenses to Internet Defamation Lawsuits
There’s countless defenses Internet defamation defendants can rely on to skirt libel and defamation liability. In this section, we’re going to take a look at some of the most popular defenses you’ll encounter when bringing an Internet defamation and libel lawsuit.
- Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
- Statute of Limitations
- Single-Publication Rule
- Incremental Harm Doctrine
- Wire Service Defense
Let’s first start with possibly the most controversial piece of Internet legislation that has been passed – The Communications Decency Act.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is often at the heart of relied on defenses for libel and defamation defendants, as it is a piece of legislation granting near immunity to website providers and ISPs in cases where defamatory and libelous content is posted to their platform. Specifically, Section 230 reads:
“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Just as telephone companies are not liable for the criminal acts discussed across their lines, ISPs and websites who have third-party content and materials posted to it, are also not liable. When commencing an Internet defamation lawsuit, try not to sue websites which are just hosts, due to the immunity granted. There are several exceptions to the CDA, however they can be somewhat narrow (ex. Copyright infringement, when the ISP materially alters content, criminal law violations, etc…)
Going after the individual and malicious libeler/poster is often the move when bringing an Internet defamation lawsuit.
The Defense of Opinion
If a statement or publication cannot be independently verified as fact or fiction, then it may give rise to the defense of opinion. After all, at the very heart of defamation is the publication and assertion of a false statement of fact.
So, if a statement cannot be ultimately be confirmed as true or false, expect a potential defense of opinion from the opposing party.
Truth/Falsity: Sometimes the Truth Hurts
While the truth may sometimes be ugly and hurt ones feelings, it is a legitimate defense to a libel or defamation action. Truth refers to any statement which may factually be proved true. This also extends to statements and publications which are substantially true – also known as the substantial truth doctrine.
The substantial truth doctrine holds that as long as the gist or sting of a statement is felt (and it’s true), then minor inaccuracies and falsities will not render a statement as a whole false.
As we noted above, defamation concerns itself with a false assertion of fact, so if the fact is false, then there is a potential claim for defamation. However, if the fact is…well fact, then there will likely be no actionable claim.
Privilege: A Party’s Legal Right
Simply put, privilege refers to a person’s legal right to do or say something without fear of liability or legal repercussions. In the context of defamation, this extends to certain statements, which are allowed for the purposes for furthering debate, democracy, and policy. There’s numerous types of privilege, which we will briefly touch on.
Absolute Privilege: It’s All-Encompassing
Absolute privilege refers to an all-encompassing right to publish or communicate a certain type of statement, at a certain time, and to a certain audience. It may be codified by statute, and is often used in legislative and judicial proceedings.
Absolute privilege is considered all-encompassing because it even extends to persons who communicate and publish statements with actual malice. Our legal system and society has deemed that there are certain types of statements, albeit potentially harmful, that are absolutely critical for the advancement of legal, social, economic, political, and financial policy – so persons communicating such statements should not be punished.
Now, let’s take a quick look at absolute privilege’s younger sibling – qualified privilege (sometimes referred to as common interest privilege).
Common Interest Privilege: The Younger Sibling
Qualified privilege, also known as common interest privilege, is absolute privilege’s younger sibling, as it does not attach to person’s who communicate and publish defamatory statements with actual malice. Qualified privilege generally occurs when a person has a legal, social, or moral duty to convey a statement or publication to a specific audience.
And, most notably – that audience must have a reciprocal interest in hearing such statement. Qualified privilege also exists in judicial and legislative proceedings.
Fair Report Privilege: For a Fair News Media
Fair report privilege extends to persons, news organizations, and other media who publish a defamatory statement or excerpt that came from an accurate and complete report of a government, judicial, legislative, or other administrative proceeding. Unless the publisher acted with actual malice and intent to harm a specific party, they will often receive immunity from publishing such reports.
As a society, it’s in our best interest to trust official reports and materials issued by government and administrative bodies. Think about how dangerous it would be to punish citizens for relying on the very reports their own government issues.
Statutory Privilege: It’s the Law
Simply put, some privileges and communications are prescribed for and codified by law. Most states will have a list of specific laws and situations where persons are permitted to communicate and publish certain statements.
Several common types of statements include; communications made to a prospective employer about a past employee, speculation of child abuse, and statements made by reports in certain situations.
Neutral Reportage: Protecting the Free Press
While seldom used, neutral reportage, also known as neutral report privilege, protects press and other news media organizations who report on matters of public interest – such as the reporting of accusations made by one public figure against another.
It’s in our public’s best interest to hear such statements made by influential figures of society about one another, even when those comments and statements are salacious and defamatory.
Litigation Privilege: Statements Made in Pursuit of Litigation
Litigation privilege is as its name implies, a privilege for attorneys and parties acting in pursuit of litigation. It generally extends to attorneys and parties to the lawsuit, and is intended to help assist in the weighing of merits and preparation of one’s legal case.
Some common examples could be where a person seeks advice on the litigation process, or is in the process of obtaining evidence for upcoming litigation.
Depending on the jurisdiction, litigation privilege may be classified as absolute or qualified.
Now, let’s turn to one of the next defenses commonly relied upon and the reason why many Internet defamation lawsuits are thrown out – the statute of limitations.
Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations is a time limiting mechanism for a legal action, meaning it provides a time framework for when a plaintiff may commence and bring their lawsuit.
In the wild world of U.S. defamation and libel law, some states differentiate between libel and slander, so it’s extremely important to familiarize yourself with your state’s respective laws. Note that due to the fleeting nature of evidence, slanderous statements often have a shorter statute of limitations (after all, libelous statements are preserved in a tangible medium).
Generally, U.S. states and their statute of limitation timeframes run from 1-3 years.
Below is a chart with several states and their respective defamation statute of limitations.
|Texas||One (1) year|
|Illinois||One (1) year|
|California||One (1) year|
|Florida||Two (2) years|
|South Carolina||Two (2) years|
|Nevada||Two (2) years|
|Massachusetts||Three (3) years|
|New Hampshire||Three (3) years|
Single Publication Rule: Protecting Defendants For Subsequent Publications
The single publication rule is a legal doctrine and principle limiting the scope of defamation claims a plaintiff may bring against a defendant. Specifically, the single publication holds that a plaintiff in a libel suit will only have one claim for each mass defamatory publication and communication, and not for every subsequent copies, books, or issues that ran after the original publication.
Think of the single publication rule as a limiting mechanism similar to a statute of limitations, as it’s not uncommon for subsequent copies and issues of a defamatory publication to run. Bringing a claim for each new publication would ultimately clog our legal system and lead to the resolving of issues that have already been litigated.
Simply put, the single publication rule provides a plaintiff has one action for each major publication, and not for subsequent copies – unless they are materially altered or different from the original.
Incremental Harm Doctrine: Rarely Applied Yet Still Applicable
The incremental harm doctrine is a rarely-applied legal doctrine in libel and defamation law, which protects defamation defendants from liability in cases where the defamatory section of a statement ultimately fails to exceed the harm caused by the rest of the publication or statement – also known as the non-actionable sections.
If the damage caused by the defamatory portion is so minimal, then there likely won’t be any actionable claim and a defamation defendant likely won’t be found liable for defamation and libel.
Wire Service Defense: Outdated, But Not Forgotten
While a somewhat archaic and old legal doctrine, the wire service defense is still not forgotten. The wire service defense protects media and news organizations and other entities which public communications and information received by way of a reputable wire service – and from a reputable news service.
Similar to fair report privilege, it’s in our best interest to preserve integrity in certain systems and mechanisms, so numerous states still recognize the use of the wire service defense to this day. However, some U.S. state courts have actually rejected its application in practice, or never recognized it – take for example, Pennsylvania.
Retraction of a Defamatory Statement/Publication
Regardless of whether a notice is required or not, notice and a request for a retraction, and a response/lack thereof is evidence of intent, and can be used to limit damages in some Internet defamation cases.
A large number of states have laws, both established by statute and case law, that require a defamation plaintiff to request a retraction before recovering specific types of damages. State retraction laws will differ in their impact on the damages which are awarded to libel plaintiffs – some states will prohibit a libel plaintiff from recovering punitive damages (unless able to show actual malice by the defendant).
Anti-SLAPP Laws: Combating Frivolous Suits
Short for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation,” SLAPP suits are lawsuits that are intended to intimidate, censor, or silence an opposing party by burdening them with potentially costly legal defense costs – in hopes they end up abandoning their opposition and criticism.
When filing an Internet defamation lawsuit, it’s important to look to a state’s respective Anti-SLAPP legislation and discuss any potential Anti-SLAPP risks with your client. For example, if you lose and the purpose of your case is over, you may be on the hook for paying the opposing party’s legal fees.
Anti-SLAPP laws are an extremely powerful defense, so it’s important to anticipate whether the opposing party might raise such. It’s absolutely essential for you to go through your MLRC book to check for any potential issues, booby traps, etc…
Let’s conclude with several state examples of Anti-SLAPP legislation.
- New York: New York’s Civil Rights Law §76-a – New York’s Civil Right’s law is designed to protect parties against SLAPP suits which are brought by public applicants.
- Ohio: Ohio does not have any laws resembling that of an Anti-SLAPP statute. However, Ohio defendants may file an “abuse of process” tort counterclaim when they feel frivolously prosecuted by a defamation plaintiff and claim. Murphy v. Plain Dealer Publ’g Co., 19 Media L. Rep. 1556 (N.D. Ohio 1991).
- California: Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 425.16 – California defendants may file a special motion to strike, “Anti-Slapp motion,” if they believe they are a victim of a SLAPP suit. To succeed on the merits, a Court must sequentially find; (1) Petition/Free Speech – the defendant acted “in furtherance of their right of petition or free speech under the U.S. or California Constitution in connection with a public issue, and (2) Plaintiff Probability of Success – if the plaintiff fails to show a probability he or she will prevail in their defamation claim, then it will be dismissed.
Ultimately, this gets back to our original point that if you’re filing a frivolous and meritless case, there’s a higher likelihood the ‘Streisand Effect’ could happen.
Online Reputation & Brand Monitoring Tip: If you have a company or business with an online presence, it’s absolutely imperative you set up an online reputation and brand monitoring budget. Doing so is an extremely effective way to combat online defamation, gauge the general public’s view of your product or service, and identify and stop intellectual property infringers. Time is of the essence when dealing with online libel and defamation, so make sure you’re able to nip it in the bud.
Work With the Internet Defamation Removal Attorneys of Minc Law Today!
If you’ve been the victim of online defamation and false accusations, reach out to the experienced Internet defamation removal attorneys of Minc Law NOW! At Minc Law, we know what it takes to secure swift and effective online libel and defamation removals, and have worked tirelessly with countless website administrators, online content managers, and third-party arbitration firms to do so.
Additionally, in our tenure as nationally recognized online defamation attorneys, we’ve secured the effective removal of over 25,000 pieces of libelous and false online content and websites, litigated in over 22 states and 3 countries, and boast a nearly 100% online takedown rate – and, we do it all for a flat, reasonable fee.
What are you waiting for?
Here’s what you can expect when working with the Cleveland-based online defamation attorneys of Minc Law:
- Utmost Respect & Courtesy: We know just how invasive and overwhelming false posts and accusations can be, so know that we’re always on your side. We’re here to make this process as smooth as possible. After all, your goals are our goals.
- Open Lines of Communication & Dialogue: Some online defamation lawyers go missing once the takedown process has begun. Not Minc Law. We understand how important it is to be kept in the loop and informed about the latest and most pressing updates surrounding your case. We’re here to keep you informed.
- Websites & Businesses Respond to Minc Law: As noted above, we’ve secured the swift and effective removal of over 25,000 pieces of libelous and false online content/website URLs, so rest assured you’re in good hands when working with the defamation removal attorneys of Minc Law. Websites and businesses respond to us, and in instances that require, we will seek to hold an individual poster accountable for their actions.
The online abuse ends today!