Court dismisses attorney’s lawsuit against ex-girlfriends for online rants

It’s an old story, really:  boy meets girl, boy cheats on girl, boy leaves second girl, girls post nasty comments about boy on www.liarscheatersrus.com, boy files lawsuit alleging defamation and tortious interference with prospective business relations…

In Couloute v. Ryncarz et al., 11-cv-5986 (SDNY Feb. 15, 2012), the court found that plaintiff failed to state plausible claims for relief with respect to either cause of action.

Facts

Defendants allegedly posted false, defamatory, and malicious comments – such that plaintiff “lied and cheated” and is “very manipulating” – on this website.  Plaintiff alleged that “Defendants made these statements knowing that Plaintiff was working in New York as an attorney and made them with the aim of interfering with Plaintiff’s ability to market his legal skills” and thus “unfairly and maliciously damaged one of [plaintiff’s] most valuable asset[s] as an attorney, his reputation for honesty and integrity.”

Tortious Interference

In New York, a plaintiff alleging tortious interference with business relations must establish (1) business relations with a third party, (2) the defendant’s interference with those business relations, (3) the defendant acted with the sole purpose of harming the plaintiff or used dishonest, unfair or improper means, and (4) injury to the business relationship.  Plaintiff must “allege that Defendants ‘directly interfered with the [identified] business relationship by directing some activities towards the third party and convinc[ing] the third party not to enter into a business relationship with the plaintiff.'”

The court held that plaintiff failed to meet this standard, because he did not “point to any client … about which Defendants had knowledge and to whom their comments were directed.”  The court refused to accept plaintiff’s unsupported theory “that potentially harmful statements posted on a website such as this one, coupled with the knowledge that the statements might be read by third parties, is sufficient to show that one or more relationships were intentionally interfered with by Defendants.”  Although plaintiff alleged that clients searching for a lawyer “were influenced by the comments in their decision not to retain Plaintiff’s services” and notwithstanding injury to plaintiff’s reputation, the court was “unwilling to take the leap from generalized comments calling Plaintiff a ‘liar’ and a ‘cheater’ – on a website called ‘liarscheatersrus’ no less – to actions directed at specific business relationships.”

Defamation

Plaintiff failed to state a claim for defamation, since, according to the court, the comments at issue were non-actionable opinion.  In making this determination, courts must consider “the larger context in which the statements were published, including the nature of the particular forum.”   Initially, the statements that plaintiff “lied and cheated” throughout his life and that plaintiff is “great at lying and covering it up” were “clearly hyperbolic”.  Moreover:

when viewed within the larger context of the website on which they were posted, there can be no doubt that a reasonable reader would understand the comments to be opinion. As Defendants note, [the site] is “specifically intended to provide a forum for people to air their grievances about dishonest romantic partners.” … The average reader would know that the comments are “emotionally charged rhetoric” and the “opinions of disappointed lovers.” … Of course the Internet makes it more likely that a greater number of people will read comments such as these, and thereby amplify the impact they may have on a person, but this does not change the underlying nature of the comments themselves.  See Sandals Resorts Intern., Ltd v. Google, Inc., 925 N.Y.S.2d 407, 415-16 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (noting the Internet “encourage[es] a freewheeling, anything-goes writing style”, and that “readers give less credence to allegedly defamatory remarks published on the Internet than to similar remarks made in other contexts”).

This case illustrates, yet again, the uphill battle faced by plaintiffs who seek legal relief merely because they believe someone said something mean about them on the Internet.