Libel

Saying Someone "Just Likes to Talk a Lot" Is Not Defamatory

What? Is there something supposedly wrong with liking to talk a lot?

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From Judge Denise Page Hood's opinion last Thursday in Cambridge Dental, LLC v. JPMorgan Chase Bank N.A. (E.D. Mich.):

The facts according to Plaintiffs' Complaint are as follows…. Dr. Ruggirello is the sole member of the limited liability company Cambridge Dental…. Plaintiffs began working with Defendant in 2012.  Through the years, Plaintiffs [Cambridge Dental and Ruggirello] have worked with several of Defendant's employees in various capacities.

In late 2017, one of Defendant's employees, Brian Slatkin … persuaded Plaintiffs to deposit $50,000.00 in one of Defendant's accounts. Instead of depositing the $50,000 into Plaintiffs' account, Slatkin used the funds for his "personal endeavors." After repeated attempts to obtain a bank statement confirming the transaction, Slatkin provided Plaintiffs with a phony transaction history sheet.

In July 2019, another one of Defendant's employees, Clay Smith … had a conversation with an unrelated third party [Lori V] at an unrelated company…. During this conversation, Smith mentioned Slatkin's handling of Plaintiffs' $50,000 and specifically referenced Dr. Ruggirello.  In that same conversation, Smith exclaimed "well you know doctors and dentists have so much money they don't pay attention to their accounts."

After that remark, Lori explained that she actually knew the subject of the conversation—Dr. Ruggirello. Following this revelation, Smith abruptly ended the conversation and left. On this same occasion, another one of Defendant's employees, Steve Ball … told Lori "it sounds like your dentist friend just likes to talk a lot" and "it sounds like your dentist friend just likes to talk to anyone who will listen." Following Lori's conversation with Smith, Ball contacted Lori in September 2019, to investigate Smith's statements to Lori.

Plaintiffs now allege that the statements made by Defendant's representatives, Smith and Ball were defamatory statements about how Dr. Ruggirello handles his business affairs. Plaintiffs are seeking a retraction by Defendant about the alleged defamatory statements, compensatory damages equal to the amount of losses that Plaintiffs have and will sustain, and costs and attorney's fees….

Defendant asserts that Plaintiffs' Complaint relies entirely upon two "completely innocuous" statements, which do not reach the high threshold required to establish defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress claims under Michigan law. Defendant argues that the two statements were "general opinion statements," which were at best, impolite, but otherwise did not meet the legal requirements for the alleged torts….

Defendant claims that Ball's statements were merely "rhetorical hyperbole." Courts have repeatedly found that certain statements, if taken in the proper context, are incapable of defamatory interpretation. Defendant contends that the instant case is one of those situations because Ball's statements was "obviously" an expression of Ball's opinion about Dr. Ruggirello and not an actual fact. Here, Ball allegedly remarked that "it sounds like your dentist friend just likes to talk to anyone who will listen." …

The Court finds that neither Smith nor Ball's alleged statements rise to the level of defamation [or intentional infliction of emotional distress] ….

Uh, yes. As usual, the big winner: the lawyers.