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FMG Law Blog Line

Posts Tagged ‘slander’

Supreme Court Revisits Interplay Between First and Fourth Amendments

Posted on: November 29th, 2018

By: Wes Jackson

Imagine you commit a minor crime and an officer approaches you. The interaction goes south when you call the officer a “pig” and remind him that your tax dollars pay his salary. He then arrests you. Were your constitutional rights violated?

That’s the question the Supreme Court considered Monday, November 26, 2018 when it heard oral arguments in Nieves v. Bartlett. In Nieves, two Alaska State Troopers were patrolling a multi-day ski and snowmobile festival when they decided to investigate some underage drinking. Bartlett, who was intoxicated, intervened and confronted the troopers. The officers arrested Bartlett and put him in a “drunk tank.” He was later released and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The state declined to prosecute the charges due to budgetary reasons. Bartlett sued, alleging his arrest was retaliatory because he refused to assist the officers in their investigation of the minors drinking alcohol.

Retaliatory arrest claims, like the one in Nieves, occur at the intersection of the First and Fourth Amendments: the presence of probable cause bars a Fourth Amendment claim for false arrest, but the circuits are split as to whether probable cause will also bar a First Amendment claim for retaliatory arrest arising from the same incident. Those circuits applying the probable cause bar to retaliatory arrest claims employ a bright-line objective standard that protects the officer from protracted litigation or trial where it is clear (or even arguable) that a reasonable officer could believe the arrestee had committed a crime. Rejecting the probable cause bar to retaliatory arrest claims could subject officers to months or years of litigation probing their subjective intent behind making an arrest—i.e., did the officer arrest the plaintiff for his crime or his speech?

At the Nieves oral argument, the justices sought to find a balance between protecting First Amendment rights while also giving law enforcement officers enough cover to act decisively and make arrests in fast-paced situations. On one hand, Justice Kagan noted the concern that officers might use minor crimes as a pretext to arrest for speech they disagree with, stating “there are so many laws that people can break that police officers generally look the other way, but, you know, you’re saying something that the officer doesn’t much like, so he doesn’t look the other way.” On the other hand, Justice Breyer and other justices noted the obvious concern with the chilling effect that would accompany the possibility of officers being haled into court every time they arrest someone who hurls an insult—officers could be to hesitant to make otherwise appropriate arrests.

One possible solution the justices entertained was to keep the probable cause bar for retaliatory arrests, but to limit its application to situations where there was probable cause for the charge on which the officer made the arrest or other charges upon which the arrestee was soon indicted. Such a solution would keep the probable cause bar for retaliatory arrests but prevent officers from concocting post hoc justifications for the arrest months or years later in a civil rights lawsuit.

The Court should issue an opinion in Nieves v. Bartlett in the coming months. If you have any questions about this case or retaliatory arrest claims more generally, please contact Wes Jackson at [email protected].

Facebook And Association Criticism: How To Address Unfounded Allegations Against An Association And Its Board

Posted on: October 12th, 2018

By: Jonathan Romvary

How far can a Board go in fighting against what they believe is unfair homeowner criticism? Can they publish a formal response to unfounded allegations? How should Associations address online criticism on unofficial Facebook groups created by dissatisfied homeowners?

These issues were partially addressed in a recent unpublished California Appeals Court decision in Kulick v. Leisure Village Association (2018). Kulick involved two consecutive lawsuits between a homeowner who was anonymously publishing an unofficial newsletter that was highly critical of his Homeowner’s Association, the Association’s Board and its attorneys. Unfortunately for the homeowner, the HOAs rules specifically prohibited the dissemination of anonymous publications to the Association’s members and the Association successfully filed suit against the homeowner for breaching the Association’s covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) and was awarded more than $125,000.00 including punitive damages.

After losing his appeal, and apparently not learning from the prior lawsuit, the homeowner began republishing his anonymous newsletter criticizing the Association’s Board, this time asserting that the Board and its officers committed perjury, extortion, obstruction of justice, racketeering, and lying and cheating. The Association’s attorneys responded to the most recent allegations by distributing an official letter to all of the homeowners addressing the allegations as a “reckless communication” containing “unfounded, inaccurate, and spiteful allegations” against the Association and detailing the prior lawsuit against the homeowner. Feeling attacked by the HOA, the homeowner filed a lawsuit against the Association for, among other things, defamation. The HOA defended itself saying its actions were protected under California’s anti-SLAPP laws which are designed to protect defendants who have been sued for acts in furtherance of a constitutionally protected right of free speech or petition. The trial court agreed, finding that the Association’s letter constituted “protected activity” as a public writing relating to an issue of public interest to the Association’s homeowners’, i.e. the lawsuit between the Association and homeowner. Ultimately the California Appellate Court upheld the trial court’s ruling.

From Kulick, it is clear that Associations may respond to individual criticisms that are not legally permissible (e.g. false assertions of fact, etc.) and have certain rights against defamation published by its members. However, it remains unclear to what extent Associations can restrict alternative forms of publications, such as Facebook community groups or anonymous Twitter accounts. In the age of Facebook, where publishing and distribution is free and easy, Associations must remain vigilant. False accusations and anonymous publications can cause significant disruption to the operation and reputation of an Association. Associations should be alert for publications containing false assertions or publications that purport to be official communication and should address any statements that defame the association, its board of directors, managing agent, or employees.

If you have any questions on how your Association can be proactive and protect itself against unofficial homeowner publications or would like more information, please contact Jonathan Romvary at [email protected].