from the how-not-to-go-legal dept
Reader Jason sent over a blog post that sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole, following the story through a variety of twists and turns. The key player in the story is Jonathan Monsarrat, who among other things founded the video game company Turbine (Asheron’s Call, Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons & Dragons Online, etc.). In early 2010, Monsarrat was arrested concerning events at a party in Massachusetts. The charges against him were later dismissed. However, there were various blog discussions among local bloggers and commenters. Not long ago, approximately three years after all of this happened, Monsarrat sued two named defendants and 100 “John Does” in a Massachusetts (not federal) court on a variety of charges, centering around defamation, but also including copyright infringement, commercial disparagement, deceptive trade practices and conspiracy. He’s asking for an astounding $5.5 million.
Reading through that complaint first, before digging deeply into a variety of other sources, there were some immediate oddities. Many of the “defamatory” statements didn’t seem to have anything that could possibly be defamatory in them. Some of them possibly reached the level of defamation, but at worst they read like typical silly hyperbole among internet commenters. Hardly worth worrying about. But other stuff seemed even odder. A copyright claim not in federal court? And for what sounded like adding context/imagery to a news article? Hmmm. That doesn’t sound right. State copyright claims are pre-empted by federal copyright law (and, no, this isn’t one of those possible exceptions involving pre-1972 recordings). Commercial disparagement? Over some blog comments? There were a lot of alarm bells, signalling something that required a lot deeper look.
Then, I came across the actual news reports of his arrest — both the Boston Globe one linked above and the Wicked Local story. Both seem to be pretty clear that they’re reporting based directly off of a police report — and state things from that police report that Monsarrat is now claiming are entirely untrue and defamatory. But… for those who repeated them on the blog, even if they did turn out to be untrue, they’d have an incredibly strong fair report privilege claim. For example, the lawsuit suggests that Monsarrat was just a guest at the house and knew little of the party before it happened. From his filing:
The party leading to Plaintiff’s arrest was hosted by another third party, “Trano”, and not by Plaintiff.
This other third party, Trano, provided music entertainment, bouncers and beer at this party, which Plaintiff knew nothing about until the immediate time leading up to the commencement of the party.
The non-use of Trano’s full name is also an interesting choice. Anyway, according to the Boston Globe coverage of the incident:
Upon arriving at the scene, police found broken beer bottles near the door of the first floor of the apartment and 25-30 teenagers inside. Many were attempting to conceal bottles of beer and other alcoholic beverages, the police report states. Open bottles of alcohol were found in the kitchen area as well as a small amount of marijuana.
Monsarrat identified himself as the host of the party, but denied that any alcohol was being served, the report states. When asked by an officer to inform his guests that the party was ending, Monsarrat became “argumentative” and refused to follow instructions, police said. Officers asked for identification from several partygoers who responded, “We’re in high school, we don’t have ID.”
Then the story gets even odder. In researching it, up popped a press release from Monsarrat himself about the lawsuit, in which he refers to himself as a “dotcom era icon and Internet expert.” Also, there’s this:
Jon Monsarrat announced this week that as part of an Internet defamation case, he will expose the real identities and addresses of 100 cyber bullies as part of his new cyber investigation service.
Oh, wait a second…
Earlier in 2013 he created a cyber-investigation service, which cracks the real identities of cyber bullies who post defamatory material online. The release of names and identities is part of this new service, for one of Monsarrat’s client with an ongoing legal case against cyber bullies. His company is working in partnership with Defend My Name, perhaps the most technically advanced of the top anti-defamation services, and Ishman Law Firm, which has expertise in defending victims from cyber-attack.
Jon Monsarrat said, “Cyber bullies harass and spread lies about their victims using the power of the Internet, which leads to thousands of suicides a year. The police and courts are not always up to the challenge of fighting back. Now I’m bringing two patented technologies to bear to help people in need.” Monsarrat was referring to his two patents in collecting and analyzing data from public websites.
This might present a possible reason that it took about three years after the original blog posts to file a lawsuit (by the way, statute of limitations on defamation in Massachusetts: three years).
And then, a bunch of LiveJournal users — including some who claimed they never commented on the original blog post — began receiving letters saying that they’re being added to the lawsuit. Apparently, those letters have some bogus boilerplate in them claiming copyright on the letter and stating “I prohibit anyone from publishing or disclosing it in whole or in part, on the internet or any other venue or any other means, without first obtaining my written consent.” That, of course, is bullshit. It is not how copyright works, especially on a legal threat letter. At least one blogger has written that Monsarrat threatened to include him in the lawsuit for merely writing about the lawsuit and for the comments others had left on that blog. Of course, there is no legitimate claim against writing about the lawsuit, and the blogger is protected from liability from the comments under Section 230 of the CDA.
Then, and only then, did I finally get to reading the epic response letter from the lawyer representing Ron Newman, one of the two named defendants in the lawsuit. The lawyer is Dan Booth of Booth Sweet LLC, a law firm you may recognize from its awesome job fighting back against numerous Prenda Law cases. I cannot do justice to the entire 18 page letter, so I suggest you read it in its entirety, but I will give you a few highlights. I will note that this is not a legal document filed with the court in response to the lawsuit, but rather a letter to Monsarrat’s lawyer, Mark Ishman, of the Ishman Law Firm, which Monsarrat’s press release names as a “partner” in this new “expose-the-cyber-bully” business.
The letter picks apart the case piece by piece in devastating fashion, noting repeatedly that the claims made in the lawsuit are so far removed from reasonable that if Ishman and Monsarrat do not drop the lawsuit, Booth and Newman will seek sanctions for bringing bad faith claims. He then goes on to lay out, in excruciating detail, what their arguments would be in court, repeatedly asking Ishman if he’s ever actually read the statutes he’s relying on. He notes the articles based on police reports as just a starting point. He then points specifically to the few quotes that were actually Newman’s, showing how the complaint appears to take them entirely out of context and misrepresent what they were saying, and there is simply no way they were even remotely defamatory. Some of them are ridiculous when put back into context — including using a comment about how Newman and some other admins had agreed to close the original thread to more comments, and saying that was defamatory. It also, of course, references CDA 230 to point out that Newman clearly is not liable for anyone else’s comments.
Those are the basics. Then it goes even deeper. I’ll let Dan Booth handle this part:
The second claim for relief is supposed to be under Chapter 93A of the Massachusetts General Laws. Have you ever actually read that statute? I’m not sure you made it all the way through to Section 9(3), which requires that a demand letter complying with certain statutory requirements must be mailed to a defendant at least 30 days before filing suit under Chapter 93A. “[T]he thirty-day requirement, as part of the requirement of a written demand for relief, is a prerequisite to suit, to be alleged and proved.” York v. Sullivan, 369 Mass. 157, 163 (1975). Perhaps you jumped the gun a bit here? You filed suit on February 4, so you would have needed to send a demand letter before January 5, 2013 to satisfy the statute. Mr. Newman received no such letter. As far as I can tell, you didn’t even comply with the spirit of the 30-day requirement — you made no attempt to settle the dispute amicably before filing suit, or before filing the amended complaint, or before having it (and its telephone-book sized pile of exhibits) served on Mr. Newman.
How about the commercial disparagement stuff? Yeah, under the law, such statements need to be made by a competitor, which Newman clearly isn’t. Oh, and Booth notes he didn’t actually disparage any products or services, as required by the law. And then we move on to the copyright claim. We already noted the oddity of trying to shove a copyright claim into a state (okay Massachusettians: commonwealth) court, and Booth highlights some more problems:
Attorney Ishman, I see on your website that you hold yourself forth publicly as a copyright lawyer. I am too. I commend you for that, and for any work you do to legitimately support and protect creators. I like copyright law a lot; I just hate to see it abused. So I wonder whether you may have gotten a bit ahead of yourself with this cause of action.
Claims of common-law copyright are preempted by the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. Have you read that statute? Since the 1976 Copyright Act became effective, Section 301 has explained that copyright claims are “governed exclusively” by the Act, and that “no person is entitled to any such [copyright] or equivalent right in any such work [within the subject matter of copyright] under the common law or statutes of any State.” 17 U.S.C. § 301(a).
In other words, common-law copyright claims are a relic. “Under the Copyright Act of 1976 … common law copyright is abolished.” Burke v. NBC, Inc., 598 F.2d 688, 691 n.2 (1st Cir. 1979). There have been no reported cases in Massachusetts state courts since the 1976 Act in which a common-law copyright was found valid. But there have been several that say things like, “These common law claims … have clearly been preempted by the 1976 Copyright Act.” Sicari v. Raccula, 2 Mass. L. Rep. 109 (Mass. Super. Ct. May 8, 1994). To the extent such claims exist, they’re generally limited to media where, due to quirks of the Act’s history, no statutory right ever existed, such as extemporaneous speeches or pre-1972 sound recordings. But the copyright claim in this case concerns a photograph, and those have been covered by the Copyright Act since Oscar Wilde was a young man. Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, 111 U.S. 53 (1884). Your assertion that Mr. Monsarrat’s images are “subject to common-law copyright protection under the laws of the state of Massachusetts” (Complaint ¶ 102) is wrong as a matter of black-letter law.
Booth even goes through a “sake of argument” explanation for how, even if common-law copyright could apply to a photograph (which, as noted, it cannot), via Monsarrat’s own actions, that photograph would be in the public domain under the specifics of the prevailing copyright law.
Booth then goes on to point out when you look at Newman’s actual comments, he actually was quite even handed when the story broke, noting things like, “To my knowledge he hasn’t been found guilty of any crime in a court of law.” And he invited Monsarrat to present his side of the story. And yet, Monsarrat tries to paint Newman’s activity as “extreme and outrageous” for the sake of “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
And then, Booth goes on to point out that the record suggests the version of the story that Monsarrat presents in his filing is less than accurate:
Those assertions are directly contradicted by the record. Set aside the fact that Mr. Monsarrat was at the party and that he was arrested at the party. Set aside the fact that both the police report and the Somerville Journal article stated plainly that Mr. Monsarrat had “identified himself as the host of the party.” Set aside the fact that the police report indicates that Mr. Monsarrat denied, to the arresting officer, that there was any alcohol at the party, despite the officer’s firsthand observations. Mr. Monsarrat publicly announced his role in the party online, before his arrest. As Mr. Newman pointed out at the time, Mr. Monsarrat had posted an open invitation on his Wheel Questions blog, announcing that he was holding the party, two days before it happened. Complaint Exhibit 4 p. 69 (“I’m holding a party Friday in the Boston area. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org and say a little about yourself for the location.”) (quoting Mr. Monsarrat). If Mr. Monsarrat wants to clear his name by suggesting that he was a mere innocent bystander at the party, he cannot hope to succeed in rewriting the public record. His own words will be admissible as non-hearsay, to prove the truth of his statements identifying himself as the host, and to disprove statements to the contrary in the complaint. See Commonwealth v. DiMonte, 427 Mass. 233, 243 (1998) (“A party’s admission is excluded by definition from the hearsay rule.”) (citing Proposed Mass. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)); see also Flood v. Southland Corp,. 33 Mass. App. Ct. 287, 294-95 (1992).
And we’re not done yet. He points out that many of the comments included in the claim are way outside the statute of limitations, and Massachusetts has a well established single publication rule, meaning that the date when the content is published is when the clock starts ticking on the statute of limitations. The fact that the content remains online is meaningless. Booth also points out the ridiculousness of the $5 million dollar demand.
The complaint seeks punitive damages in an amount to exceed $5,000,000. That is outrageous on its face, and wholly unsustainable under controlling law. Massachusetts has not allowed such damages since 1974. “In a case of defamation the plaintiff’s recovery is limited to actual damages, which are compensatory for the wrong done by the defendant. … Punitive damages are never allowed … even after proof of actual malice.” Stone v. Essex County Newspapers, Inc., 365 Mass. 246 (1974) (citations omitted). The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts reaffirmed that position the following year: “We reject the allowance of punitive damages in this Commonwealth in any defamation action, on any state of proof, whether based in negligence, or reckless or wilful conduct. We so hold in recognition that the possibility of excessive and unbridled jury verdicts, grounded on punitive assessments, may impermissibly chill the exercise of First Amendment rights by promoting apprehensive self-censorship.” Stone v. Essex County Newspapers, Inc., 367 Mass. 849, 860 (1975).
As for the letters that various LiveJournal users are receiving:
It is my understanding that Mr. Monsarrat has busied himself, since the filing of the amended complaint, by reaching out to people he believes responsible for these three-year old discussions, sending them wildly improper threatening letters and/or directly confronting in person. In at least one of those letters, he states, “The purpose of this correspondence to is [sic] notify you that I am suing LiveJournal forum moderator Ron Newman for $5,500,000 for defamation, and that you are named as a Doe Defendant in this lawsuit…” These actions are deeply dismaying. Mr. Monsarrat is tarnishing Mr. Newman’s name in scattershot fashion, to many people who may have had no relation to the postings at issue. He may not harass people in the Somerville community by seeking to intimidate them into removing their legitimate free speech comments.
Booth also points out that in intimidating various LiveJournal users into possibly removing their comments, there may be further issues with regard to encouraging the destruction of key pieces of evidence:
When Mr. Monsarrat succeeds in this intimidation, he helps to destroy the record that would be at issue if the litigation were to proceed. If this pattern of behavior continues, he may be subjecting himself to sanctions for suborning spoliation. Thanks to poor formatting, many of the Complaint’s Exhibits reproduce discussion threads in piecemeal fashion, omitting much or all of the text of longer comments. See, for just one example, Complaint Exhibit 4 pp. 31-42. These fragmentary Exhibits leave the original online discussions as the only reliable source of material evidence. Any deletion of those comments, as Mr. Monsarrat demands, makes them invisible to subsequent viewers, depriving defendants of the context-specific defenses that a defamation claim requires. “‘The destruction of relevant evidence … has a pernicious effect on the truthfinding function of our courts.’ … The doctrine of spoliation permits the imposition of sanctions or remedies where a litigant or its expert negligently or intentionally loses or destroys evidence that the litigant (or expert) knows or reasonably should know might be relevant to a possible action, even when the spoliation occurs before an action has been commenced.” Scott v. Garfield, 454 Mass. 790, 797 (2009) (quoting Fletcher v. Dorchester Mut. Ins. Co., 437 Mass. 544, 553 (2002)).
Booth also notes the same press release I saw, and raises some questions about it:
It appears this action has been filed with an ulterior purpose: not as a good faith means to redress any legitimate grievances, but as a case study to be used in marketing one of Mr. Monsarrat’s business ventures. That would be more than improper enough, but worse, the entire purpose of “cyber investigation service” seems to be to empower litigants to make endruns around the discovery process, as Mr. Monsarrat has done.
And, also, the oddity of the fact that Ishman appears to be both a lawyer for Monsarrat and a business partner:
This partnership, in the place of a putative client and attorney relationship, is more than irregular. It may subject Attorney Ishman and his law firm to the same liability as Mr. Monsarrat, based on their involvement in a larger scheme. See Kurker v. Hill, 44 Mass. App. Ct. 184, 192 & n. 8 (1998). “[A] civil action is wrongful if its initiator does not have probable cause to believe the suit will succeed, and is acting primarily for a purpose other than that of properly adjudicating his claims.” G.S. Enterprises, Inc. v. Falmouth Marine, Inc., 410 Mass. 262, 273 (1991). It appears that Mr. Monsarrat has dragged Mr. Newman into court, and badgered an untold number of others, to make a name for his “cyber investigation service.” This ulterior purpose, combined with the paucity of the complaint’s factual allegations and legal claims, strongly suggest that the action has been undertaken without good faith. These improprieties would support counterclaims of abuse of process, see generally Millennium Equity Holdings, LLC v. Mahlowitz, 456 Mass. 627, 636 (2010), and under Chapter 93A, see Northeast Data Sys., Inc. v. McDonnell Douglas Computer Sys. Co., 986 F.2d 607, 611 (1st Cir. 1993) (filing legal claim “which proves baseless” is an unfair trade practice if claim brought with “ulterior motive”); Nova Assignments, Inc. v. Kunian, 77 Mass. App. Ct. 34, 44 n. 7 (2010); Refuse & Envtl. Sys., Inc. v. Indus. Servs. of Am., Inc., 932 F.2d 37, 43 (1st Cir. 1991) (“bringing [a] lawsuit in spite of the evidence” can violate Chapte 93A). These improprieties would further support sanctions under M.G.L. c. 231, § 6F, see Fronk v. Fowler, 456 Mass. 317, 334 -35 (2010) (“Claims that are so unmoored from law or fact are the very definition of ‘frivolous’: ‘Lacking a legal basis or legal merit; not serious; not reasonably purposeful.'”) (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 739 (9th ed. 2009)), and under Mass. R. Civ. P. 11, see Van Christo Adver. v. M/A-COM/LCS, 426 Mass. 410, 416-17 (1998).
Believe it or not, those aren’t even all of the highlights of the letter. I imagine that this one could get interesting if Ishman and Monsarrat choose not to take Booth’s stern suggestion that they immediately dismiss the claims against Newman with prejudice.
Filed Under: copyright, cyber bullies, dan booth, defamation, jonathan monsarrat, lawsuit, mark ishman, massachusetts, ron newman, threats