Court Tosses Libel Suit Brought Against A Legal Doc Site For ‘Failing’ To Report On A Settlement Agreement
from the reporting-facts-is-never-defamatory dept
We’ve seen lots of… shall we say… misguided libel lawsuits here at Techdirt. We’ve also seen plenty of lawsuits filed for the sole purpose of bullying someone into silence for reporting inconvenient facts.
This case is more of the “misguided” variety. Someone who clearly doesn’t understand the basics of libel law filed a lawsuit against a legal document site, Leagle. That would be unsurprising if the litigant was representing himself. But he had a lawyer, David Epstein, who apparently didn’t understand the basics of libel law.
John Thomas and his lawyer actually filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming it was defamatory for Leagle to host a copy of a decision by the California Court of Appeals that ruled Thomas had abused the discovery process during a lawsuit where Thomas was the defendant and $1.2 million in damages was awarded to the plaintiff.
This was all factual. This actually happened and was documented in a court decision that Leagle posted to its site. That wasn’t the end of this particular litigation, however. On remand, a settlement was reached.
According to Thomas (and his legal rep), the failure of Leagle to publish the decision noting the settlement was defamatory.
Defendants maintain an internet website that purports to provide information about legal cases. Defendants published and continue to publish information regarding a legal case against plaintiff which left the false impression that judgment was in effect against him, including for fraud, when in fact the case was dismissed. In spite of amicable demand, defendant failed and resumed to remove or correct the information, causing damage to plaintiff’s reputation and business interests.
Yeah… that’s not defamation. Posting one set of facts is factual reporting. That those facts were (sort of) superseded by another set of facts doesn’t make the original posting (which, we must reiterate, was nothing more than the posting of court decision) any less factual. It definitely doesn’t make it libel.
Leagle never responded to the lawsuit and Thomas moved for a default judgment. Despite facing no one and no motions to the contrary, he still loses. And that’s because the law simply does not work the way Thomas would like it to.
This is from the short decision [PDF] dismissing Thomas’ ridiculous libel lawsuit:
Here, Legale’s publication of the trial court order finding Plaintiff liable for civil fraud is unquestionably a “fair and true” reflection of what happened during a judicial proceeding. Although the order that Legale published was reversed, the appellate court’s reversal does not change the fact that Plaintiff was found liable in the trial court, and thus does not alter the accuracy of Legale’s reporting. Thus, Leagle’s reporting is protected by the fair report privilege and the motion should be denied.
The law protects reporters and reporting, the court goes on to say. The public’s interest is served by court reporting, including the publication of court documents. Requiring reporters (and legal doc sites like Leagle) to constantly monitor all courts and all motions, rulings, etc. to ensure every publication is the latest publication would just lead to fewer entities engaging in this important public service.
Requiring reporters to continuously update stories on trial proceedings to account for appellate developments would disincentivize coverage of trial proceedings.
While it does indeed subjectively suck for Thomas to be memorialized on Leagle as someone who committed court fraud, those were the facts at the time Leagle published the ruling. It’s just the way it is, and what Thomas believes is libel is just the way reporting works. What happened actually happened. Leagle cannot possibly defame anyone by publishing court documents. And Thomas should have recognized this fact long before he decided to be taken for a ride by a lawyer who, at the very least, should have recognized this fact and apprised Thomas of his inability to win this lawsuit.