Court Overturns $60k Verdict Against Blogger Who Told The Truth

from the about-time dept

A few years ago, we wrote about a horrifying ruling in which a blogger who was sued for libel was told he had to pay $60,000, even though it was shown that what he had said was entirely truthful. It’s an oft-repeated statement that truth is an absolute defense against defamation claims, but in this case, things got weird (and troubling). The ruling found that even though the statements were truthful, they represented “tortious interference” with employment. The case involved a blogger named John Hoff who blogged, truthfully, about Jerry Moore’s involvement in a high-profile mortgage fraud situation. Moore had been hired by the University of Minnesota, but was apparently let go soon after Hoff’s post. It seemed absolutely ridiculous that providing truthful information about someone should ever be seen as illegal, but that seemed to be the case here. The original ruling was a jury verdict and we had hoped that the court would set aside that verdict, but it chose not to, going against a rather large collection of case law (and common sense).

Thankfully, Hoff appealed, and the appeals court has now reversed the original ruling. The appeals court made the point clearly and concisely:

Because truth is an absolute defense to a claim for defamation, truth should also be a defense to a claim for tortious interference with a contract arising out of an allegedly defamatory statement.

The court goes into much more detail over its decision to reverse and send it back to the lower court, but it all comes back to the basics. If the content is truthful, then there’s no issue:

Moore argues that Hoff is not shielded from tort liability simply because Moore could not prove the falsity of Hoff’s statement. Rather, Moore urges us to rely instead on Hoff’s motivation for making the allegedly defamatory statements. Moore asserts that because Hoff had an ulterior motive of getting Moore fired, he can be liable for the tortious-interference claims. We disagree.

When a person conveys unflattering and possibly damaging information to another person’s employer, it is unlikely that the motivation for conveying that information is borne out of affection. It is much more likely that the intent is for the employer to take responsive action — up to and including termination — based on the content of that information. Regardless of the motivation of the messenger, if the information conveyed is true, it is not appropriate for liability to attach.

It’s good that the courts seem to have fixed the earlier decision, but it’s still crazy that it even got this far.

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Comments on “Court Overturns $60k Verdict Against Blogger Who Told The Truth”

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Anonymous Coward says:

how could any court manage to twist the truth so much that the person telling the truth is then deemed guilty? perhaps the most important questions to ask are how the hell do people like the one that made the original ruling become judges, when there appears to be such an enormous lack of common sense, as well as legal sense? who the hell decides that people like the one that made the original ruling should become a judge anyway? they are dealing with the lives of real people here. it isn’t some Hollywood movie! but perhaps that’s the main issue. they are so used to being ‘encouraged’ which way to vote, they forgot what is real and what is make believe

Bengie says:

Re: Re:

Just glancing over the summary, I can kind of see where the judge was coming from, but his reasoning was wrong.

If the person “telling the truth” keeps sending truthful information to the other person’s potential employers, that could be seen as harassment.

If this is the case, then the person should be instructed not to do this again, but not punished for the current offense, especially not for telling the truth.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Suppose the person were a convicted child molester in another state, and the person repeatedly and persistently applies for employment in your neighborhood, at employers that would give him access to children?

Think of the children!

So where do you draw the line at it being harassment?

The information might be: this person is a convicted molester (true), and is in violation of court orders (also let’s suppose is true).

That’s just an extreme hypothetical example — but the purpose of an extreme is to ask: so where do you draw the line at harassment?

Jesse (profile) says:

Glad to see a reasonable ruling.

The thing I don’t get is that if there was any problem, it would be with the employer. If it was wrong for the employer to fire someone based on a piece of truthful information (i.e. a disability), then go after the employer. Otherwise, what case is there?

I guess the only other case would be if it were some private information obtained fraudulently, like private medical data.

Dave T (profile) says:

The truth About John Hoff

Congratulations to John Hoff on having his judgment reversed. I am certain he is relieved. The Minnesota Court of Appeals clearly had to balance constitutional protections against the claims of the Plaintiff.
But to know this case, you really have to understand what the jury heard. And that was that John Hoff was a sadistic predator that had a documented 10+ year history of using the internet, blogs, online forums and groups, and print media to harass intimidate, degrade, threaten, and victimize people he didn?t like or had a disagreement with. John Hoff made a name for himself in his north Minneapolis community by writing a blog under the name ?Johnny Northside?. Early articles centered on absentee landlords who neglected their rental properties. Hoff tried to look like a hero by posting photos of him boarding up vacant houses until city officials told him to stop. He then went on to target any property owner with code violations, or that had ?criminals? living at that address, posting photos of the property and mug shots of the residents. He would also ?stake out? certain homes and photograph the people as they came and went. Hoff used, and still uses the Internet to cyber stalk people by searching social media to learn where they live, work, and play then he makes their lives a living hell. He will send messages and emails to his victim?s friends and family spreading defamatory information. He will publish derogatory (and sometimes false) blog posts claiming to have obtained the information from ?confidential? sources he refuses to name. And if Hoff doesn?t get satisfaction from attacking his victim, he will write offensive blog posts about his victim?s friends and family in an attempt to have those friends alienate his victim.
To hear or read about Hoff?s history of abuse makes you wonder why he hasn?t been arrested or sued previously. The lengths that John Hoff takes to victimize people are absolutely astounding. What is even more mind boggling is that Hoff firmly believes he has the right to harass and intimidate people because his blogging is free speech, protected by the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution.
What John Hoff did to Jerry Moore, the Plaintiff in this case, was accomplished in typical John Hoff fashion. He was not providing a ?public service? (as he claimed during trial) in informing the University of Minnesota about some irregularities in Mr. Moore?s background, rather he was making a malicious attempt to make Moore?s life miserable by getting him fired from his new position at the University. And just to make sure officials at the University took the information seriously, he threatened to blackmail the UofM by informing them that if they didn?t fire Mr. Moore, Hoff would publish a series of negative articles about the University. Moore was fired with days.
The only reason this case was reversed was because Hoff was involved with a co-conspirator and defendant, Donald Allen (who settled prior to trial), and their actions were so closely entwined that they could not be separated.
The problem with this reversal by the Minnesota Court of Appeals is that now Hoff believes he has an unlimited license to harass people under protection of the 1st Amendment.
The very first thing he did after blogging about his ?colossal win? was to send an intimidating email to his nemesis, Jim Watkins, who writes an ?Anti-Johnny? blog, threatening to continue writing about his acquaintances:

In an interesting turn of events, John Hoff the self-proclaimed neighborhood revitalizer who reports his neighbors for housing code violations has been hit with administrative orders and could face fines from the City of Minneapolis to bring his house up to code.
When he bought the home on 26th & Bryant Avenue North in 2008 it didn’t have a functioning furnace or water heater, and was missing considerable plumbing. Without obtaining the required building permits he made unauthorized repairs to the home which he now rents out without the required rental license.
Recently, the City of Minneapolis issued orders to have the house brought up to code and to be in compliance with the Truth in Housing report filed before he bought the house. His failure to bring o up to code will result in fines, and possible condemnation.
Currently, Hoff is an absentee slumlord renting out his out-of-compliance house to two people he calls ?roommates?, even though he hasn?t lived in the house for over one year. According to Hoff?s neighbors they have not seen his in months, some claiming the only people seen around the house have been his two renters.
It?s worth pointing out that the house only has two bedrooms, and if Hoff were actually living there and each had his own bedroom, one bedroom would be unauthorized under building code.
Neighbors have asked why the city hasn?t cracked down on him sooner. Hoff is personal friends with Councilmember Don Samuels who chairs the powerful Public Safety Committee, and that Samuels even testified on Hoff?s behalf at a recent civil trial. John Hoff himself has written in his blog that he sends Samuels ?trinkets of nominal value? to show his appreciation. This situation appears to have the appearance of impropriety.

T.J. says:

John Hoff Needs Mental Health Help

What readers need to understand is that John Hoff is a mentally disturbed war veteran who refuses to get help. Free treatment is available from the VA, but he doesn’t recognize that he is paranoid and delusional. Hoff is currently serving in the Oklahoma National Guard because the Minnesota Guard wouldn?t deploy him. Please contact: Brigadier General Glen E. Moore 3501 Military Circle Oklahoma City, OK 73111 and let the National Guard know that you are concerned about John Hoff’s mental health and ask that they refer Hoff to get the help he needs before he actually hurts someone.
All communications will be private and not available to John Hoff.
Let’s get John the help he needs before he actually hurts someone, and let?s keep America safe. We don?t need another mass shooting.

David Blomstrom (user link) says:

John Hoff

Anyone know what city John Hoff lives in, or, better yet, have a URL for his blog? I’ve been trying to track him down, but it’s hard because there are so many John Hoff’s, and he’s lived in so many states.

I’m a Seattle activist and first heard about Hoff years ago when he gathered information about the Seattle Police Department and put it on a CD. I’d love to get a copy of it, but I haven’t been able to contact him.


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