Agard v. Hill, 2010 WL 1444580 (E.D. Cal. Apr. 9, 2010) (full-text).
Plaintiff Cunina Agard is a wedding planner who was hired by defendants Brett and Jennilee Hill but subsequently fired before the date of the wedding. A year and a half after the wedding, defendants published statements on multiple websites regarding the plaintiff and her services, which the plaintiff contended were false.
The statements were headed “Wedding Coordinator Warning.” While few specifics were given, the statements described the alleged process of suing and collecting a judgment from the plaintiff, and made a claim that hiring plaintiff would cause more problems “than any bride should have to deal with.” Specifically, plaintiff contended that three (3) false statements were made: (1) “Ms. Agard moved multiple times,” (2) “We discovered that she is operating under a new name and location,” and (3) that defendants had to fire plaintiff “a couple months before the wedding due to issues that are too numerous and frustrating to go into at this moment.” Plaintiff also claimed that defendants approached various vendors known by defendants to have business relationships with plaintiff to discredit her professionally.
Trial Court Proceedings
Plaintiff alleged that the false statements were made to portray her in a negative light and imply that she was actively trying to avoid service of the lawsuit, and that she was trying to hide from her tarnished reputation and conceal her identity in a new location. Plaintiff sought regular damages of $300,000, special damages up to $425,000, and punitive damages to be determined by the court, for defamation and tortious interference with contract or prospective economic advantage. Defendants also sued the plaintiff in small claims court and were awarded a judgment of $4,000. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims.
In support of her claim of defamation, plaintiff argued that defendants maliciously published the aforementioned statements in an attempt to interfere with her business and that as a result, she suffered damages, loss of reputation, and was thereafter unable to work as a wedding planner in her county or the surrounding counties. Defendants argued by way of collateral estoppel, that the small claims judgment precluded plaintiff from bringing the current claims and that as statements made to “future brides” and as opinions, the statements were privileged.
The tort of defamation involves (1) a publication that is (2) false, (3) defamatory, (4) unprivileged, and that (5) has a natural tendency to injure or that causes special damages. Defamatory language not libelous on its face is not actionable unless the plaintiff alleges and proves that he has suffered special damages as a proximate result thereof. Malice or ill will is not an element of defamation.
Whether or not a statement was made as an “opinion” is not alone dispositive of a finding of defamation. The question is resolved in a determination of whether a “reasonable fact finder could conclude the published statement declares or implies a provably false assertion of fact.” In determining actionable fact versus nonactionable opinion, the Ninth Circuit employs a three-part test: (1) whether the general tenor of the entire work negates the impression that the defendant was asserting an objective fact, (2) whether the defendant used figurative or hyperbolic language that negates the impression, and (3) whether the statement in question is susceptible of being proved true or false. In essentially all cases, the truth of the offensive statements is a complete defense against civil liability, regardless of bad faith or malicious purpose. The burden of pleading a proving truth is on the defendant.
California Civil Code §47 provides that certain privileges exist as a defense to an action for defamation, however, the court refused to grant such a privilege because the defendants failed to specifically allege which privilege granted by the statute they were afforded. Additionally, their argument that plaintiff’s claim was barred by collateral estoppel was unpersuasive because the statements made by defendants did not rely on any of the facts from the small claims action.
To succeed on a claim of intentional interference with prospective business advantage, the plaintiff must prove “(1) an economic relationship between the plaintiff and some third party, with the probability of future economic benefit to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant’s knowledge of the relationship; (3) intentional acts on the part of the defendant designed to disrupt the relationship; (4) actual disruption of the relationship; and (5) economic harm to the plaintiff proximately caused by the acts of the defendant.” Additionally, the plaintiff must also plead and prove that the defendant’s conduct was wrongful by some legal measure other than the fact of interference itself. By pleading that the defendants’ statements were libelous, the court held that the plaintiff successfully plead the elements for tortious interference, including the requirement that Defendants’ conduct be wrongful in addition to the interference.
- ↑ Taus v. Loftus, 40 Cal.4th 683, 804, 151 P. 3d 1185, 54 Cal. Rptr. 3d 775 (2007) (full-text).
- ↑ Cal. Civ. Code § 45.
- ↑ 5 B. Witkin, Summ. of Cal. Law, Torts §529, at 782 (10th ed. 2005).
- ↑ Franklin v. Dynamic Details, Inc., 116 Cal.App.4th 375, 385, 10 Cal.Rptr.3d 429 (2004) (full-text).
- ↑ Gardner v. Martino, 563 F.3d 981, 987 (9th Cir. 2009) (full-text).
- ↑ Smith v. Maldonado, 72 Cal.App.4th 637, 647, 85 Cal.Rptr.2d 397 (1999) (full-text).
- ↑ Korea Supply Co. v. Lockheed Martin Corp., 29 Cal.4th 1134, 1153, 131 Cal.Rptr.2d 29 (2003) (full-text).