Anti-SLAPP Law Turns Bogus Defamation Lawsuit Into A $26,500 Legal Bill For The Plaintiff
from the federal-law-sure-would-be-nice-tho dept
Tennessee’s new anti-SLAPP law has resulted in another bogus defamation lawsuit being dumped by a plaintiff before it could do any more damage… to the plaintiff. The great thing about anti-SLAPP laws is they shift the financial burden to the person bringing the lawsuit. If the lawsuit is completely without merit — like many of those filed in Tennessee before the new law — the plaintiff pays the defendant’s legal bills.
The new law appears to have slowed the flow of vexatiously bullshit lawsuits into Tennessee courts. But there are some brave, but mostly stupid, plaintiffs willing to take the new law out for a spin. Carl Vonhartman is probably more stupid than brave. He sued Kortni Butterton for defamation after she wrote a Facebook post (on a private, invite-only page) about her experience with Vonhartman after she rejected him on a dating app.
“His Instagram is full of him being a d*****bag a****** making fun of people and generally just being a d***,” Butterton wrote.
On January 29, Butterton said the man from the dating app showed up at her door.
“I’m locked in my bathroom,” she can be heard saying to a 911 operator. “Oh my God, he’s banging on my f****** house right now. He is consistently ringing my doorbell right now.”
Before police arrived, the man left.
Butterton was so frightened by the experience, she filed for a temporary order of protection, learning that the man she had rejected on the dating app’s name was actually Carl Vonhartman.
At the hearing to extend the order, Butterton explained that when she rejected Vonhartman through the app, he did not take the rejection well, asking for an explanation as to why.
Vonhartman sued [PDF], claiming he was defamed by all of this, including Butterhorn’s critique of his Instagram page. Daniel Horwitz — well-known here for his fierce defense of Tennessee residents hit with bogus libel lawsuits — fired back [PDF], pointing out Vonhartman’s defamation claims were ridiculous for a number of reasons.
[T]he Plaintiff’s claim for slander based on Ms. Butterton’s “testi[mony] in court on February 10, 2020,” during her order of protection hearing in Davidson County General Sessions Court Case No. 20OP250 is barred by Tennessee’s absolute testimonial privilege, which affords witnesses like Ms. Butterton absolute immunity for testimony given during a judicial proceeding.
[T]he Plaintiff’s claim for libel based on Ms. Butterton’s “swor[n ] allegations in her Petition for [an] Order of Protection” in Davidson County General Sessions Case No. 20OP25024 is barred not only by the absolute testimonial privilege noted above, see id.—it is also barred by the absolute litigation privilege, which guarantees all litigants “the freedom to institute an action without fear of being sued based on statements made in the course of the proceeding[.]”
[T]he Plaintiff’s claim for slander based on “false statements” that the Plaintiff alleges Ms. Butterton made to the police when she “called 911 on January 29, 2020,” is barred—as an initial matter—by the aforementioned absolute litigation privilege that extends to communications preliminary to litigation… It is also barred, independently, by the conditional public interest and common interest privileges, which immunize from defamation liability good-faith reports to law enforcement…
And here’s the knockout punch:
[G]iven his abysmal reputation for both criminality and terrorizing women, the Plaintiff is libel-proof.
Along with a DUI arrest, there’s the simple assault charge brought against Vonhartman, which contains this telling bit of narrative in the police report:
[The victim] advised that she told carl [Vonhartman] she was going to call the police due to the assault. she advised that carl told her “if you call the police i am going to post naked pictures of you on the internet”. jennifer advised she changed her mind at that time about calling the police.
Jennifer also advised police that she has numerous text messages from carl saved that state he will post pictures of her online and also get her fired from her job.
Also included in the filing’s exhibits are some Facebook Messenger chats in which Vonhartman threatens the Facebook page administrator with lawsuits, a “war,” and getting her… fired from her job.
The judge overseeing the case never got a chance to address Horwitz’s motion to dismiss. It must have been enough for Vonhartman that his lawyer read it. As Horwitz reports, the lawsuit has been settled and his client is the recipient of the largest fee award in the state’s short history under a new anti-SLAPP law.
From the order [PDF]:
As evidenced by the signatures of adversary counsel below, all matters in controversy between the Parties have been settled and compromised, and subject to the Court’s approval, the Parties have agreed to the following conclusive resolution of this action:
1. The Plaintiff stipulates that his Complaint failed to state any cognizable claim for relief against the Defendant, and that for the reasons set forth in the Defendant’s Memorandum of Law in support of her petition to dismiss this action pursuant to the Tennessee Public Participation Act (Doc. #12), the Defendant’s Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-17- 104(a) Petition to Dismiss the Plaintiff’s Complaint Pursuant to the Tennessee Public Participation Act (Doc. #11) should be and is hereby GRANTED. Accordingly, the Plaintiff’s Complaint, and all causes of action asserted within it, shall be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
2. Upon entry of this Order, judgment shall be ENTERED in favor of the Defendant against the Plaintiff in the amount of twenty-six thousand and five hundred dollars ($26,500.00)—inclusive of all available claims for attorney’s fees, discretionary costs, and sanctions…
With a plaintiff opening with a lot of bluster and non-actionable claims and leaving $26k lighter, perhaps other litigation hopefuls will decide they’d rather not risk their own cash on questionable legal arguments. Every loss is a deterrent, but one with a $26,500 price tag is especially effective.