Friday, September 16, 2011

"Goodbye, My Wardrobe"

A South Carolina attorney who sued a paper for defamation after an article called her a "two bit" and "corruptible" lawyer won actual and punitive damages at trial. The South Carolina Court of Appeals affirmed the actual but reversed the punitive damage award.

The facts:

...the Columbia City Paper published an article entitled "Adieu M'Armoire: Whit-Ash Co. linked to bizarre divorce case, other prominent figures implicated."  The subject of the article was the divorce of Stella and Whit Black and a lawsuit Stella Black filed against Whit's divorce attorney, Rebecca West. In particular, the article addressed allegations Black made in an affidavit and motion filed in the divorce case, and in the complaint filed in the civil lawsuit, to support Black's claim that West should not be permitted to represent Whit.  In the civil lawsuit against West, Black alleged causes of action for civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and malpractice.  Paul Blake, a reporter for City Paper, reviewed the public record of Black's civil suit against West, which included Black's affidavit and motion in the divorce case.  Todd Morehead, another City Paper reporter, wrote the article based on Blake's review of the public record and interviews Blake conducted.  Neither Blake nor Morehead attempted to speak with West before publishing the article.

West sued City Paper, Blake, and Morehead for defamation.  West, who was mentioned by name in the article, alleged the following two statements in the article defamed her: (1) "[I]t had all the ingredients of a cheap detective novel: . . . two-bit lawyers who'll even turn on their own clients if the retainer is juicy enough"; and (2) "[W]hen they think back to the tense days of the Black divorce many won't care about the corruptible attorneys or ETV property."  At trial, Morehead admitted the statements refer to West.  He also admitted he chose "adjectives" to describe West that do not appear in the public documents.  However, both he and Blake testified the article was based exclusively on allegations Black made in the public documents.  Morehead testified the article was written in "narrative literary style" and did not reflect his or City Paper's opinion of West.

No punitives because:

...the gist of the publicly filed allegations Black made against West is that West is not a good lawyer, and that in this particular instance West intentionally and deceitfully abused her position of confidence with Black for the purpose of harming Black and benefiting Black's husband so that West would realize financial gain.  When we compare these publicly made allegations with the statements in the article that West is a "two-bit lawyer" and a "corruptible attorney," we find West has not proven by clear and convincing evidence that Appellants believed their characterization of the allegations Black made against West were not accurate.  Therefore, West has failed to prove actual malice.  We find the trial court erred as a matter of law in denying Appellants' directed verdict motion.  Accordingly, we reverse the jury's award of punitive damages.

The title of the article? According to a footnote:

In French, "adieu" means "farewell" or "goodbye," and "armoire" means "wardrobe" or "furniture."  "Adieu, Mi Armoire" means, quite literally, "goodbye, my wardrobe."  The Concise Oxford French-English Dictionary 14, 57 (1968).  Todd Morehead testified he intended the title to be a play on the opera "Adieu, M'Amour," because Stella Black is an aspiring opera star, and Whit Black owns a furniture store.

(Mike Frisch)

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The article never called the attorney two-bit or corruptible. In fact, the sentence in question never mentioned any particular attorney's name and allegations against this attorney came from one of her former clients as summed up from court documents. This is considered fair reporting in any other state in the nation.
The legal community in S.C. needs to grow up and face the fact a First Amendment exists.

Posted by: Paul Blake | Oct 4, 2011 12:47:10 AM

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