The Volokh Conspiracy

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Judge's Advice That Party "'Zip It' on Social Media" Isn't an Injunction


From U.S. v. Haight v. RRSA (Commercial Division), LLC, decided Wednesday by Judge Karen Gren Scholer (N.D. Tex.):

Two weeks after announcing [that the case had settled], Defendants filed the instant Motion requesting dismissal as a sanction against Plaintiff-Relator Tina Haight or, alternatively, "other appropriate sanctions," based on Relator's alleged "defamatory and false statements" on social media regarding Defendants, the litigation, and the parties' recent settlement. Defendants assert that Relator "continues to disparage and damage the reputations of the RRSA Defendants through unsupported and factually false allegations," and that this conduct has negatively impacted settlement negotiations and "cannot be stopped without judicial intervention." Defendants further request an order enjoining "Relator from making any further posts, comments or messages on social media related to this case or the RRSA Defendants, or from otherwise defaming or disparaging the RRSA Defendants." …

Defendants' Motion does not claim that Relator's conduct violates any term of the parties' settlement agreement, such as a confidentiality provision or non-disparagement clause. But in any event, such a garden-variety breach of contract claim is an independent cause of action not before the Court.

Similarly, Relator's alleged defamatory statements are not inherently abusive of the judicial process as required to warrant the Court's exercise of its limited discretionary power. Nor is the Court convinced that the requested injunctive relief is within the scope of its inherent authority to sanction—even ignoring the potential First Amendment ramifications of enjoining a private litigant's out-of-court statements as a sanction for other out-of-court statements. Defendants' allegations of disparagement and reputational harm are actionable, if at all, in a suit for defamation.

Finally, Defendants' Motion references the Court's statement at the December 9, 2021, hearing in an attempt to establish violation of a court order. However, the Court's off-the-record suggestion to Relator's counsel that their client "zip it" on social media was informal advice to facilitate settlement, not a court order for sanctions purposes. Accordingly, because Relator's statements are "neither before the district court nor in direct defiance of its orders, the conduct is beyond the reach of the court's inherent authority to sanction."

For defendants' side of the matter, see the motion.