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Free Speech

Lawyer Wins Libel Case Against Husband's Ex-Lover—But Verdict Is $5K


From Judge John Cronan's decision today in Graterol-Garrido v. Vega (S.D.N.Y.); it's interesting and detailed (32 pages), but here's the Introduction:

Plaintiff Maria Herminia Graterol-Garrido brought this against Defendant Patricia Maria Vega, alleging that Vega made several defamatory statements about her on May 16, 2020. In 2010, Vega had a sexual encounter with Graterol-Garrido's husband, which resulted in the birth of a child early the next year. The allegedly defamatory statements included social media postings that accused Graterol-Garrido of misconduct related to the resulting family court proceedings, Graterol-Garrido's financial dealings, and other matters. Vega also sent messages over Facebook to Graterol-Garrido's prospective business affiliate in Australia, conveying similar allegations.

A two-day bench trial occurred on November 9 and 10, 2021. For reasons that follow, the Court finds in favor of Graterol-Garrido as to all causes of action, concluding that Vega defamed Graterol-Garrido through various statements made on May 16, 2020, and awards judgment in the amount of $5,000….

Graterol-Garrido studied law in Venezuela before obtaining graduate degrees from Harvard University and Columbia Law School. She has specialized in women's rights advocacy since 1995, has done extensive work with the United Nations including as a consultant, and has served on boards of directors for various nonprofit institutions.

And, as to damages:

"Presumed damages are justified on the grounds that those forms of defamation that are actionable per se are virtually certain to cause serious injury to reputation, and that this kind of injury is extremely difficult to prove." Likewise, "mental and emotional distress" are difficult to prove. However, the "entitlement to general damages does not imply a right to substantial damages," which requires "a finding of substantial injury."

The Court thus considers the harm to Graterol-Garrido when assessing damages. As just noted, there was actual harm here. The most evident professional harm to Graterol-Garrido came from Vega's messages to the Think+Do Tank Foundation. Upon receiving the messages, the Foundation initiated an internal investigation that required Graterol-Garrido to turn over sensitive documents and involved interviews of Graterol-Garrido's friends and professional colleagues. While going through a very difficult period, Graterol-Garrido had to provide the Foundation with deeply personal information about her crumbling marriage, as well as references to vouch for her character.

Graterol-Garrido still received a seat on the board of directors, but agreed with the Foundation that she should not serve as its chairperson out of concerns that Vega's allegations would negatively impact the Foundation's fundraising efforts. And again, the failure of Vega's defamation to further impede Graterol-Garrido's relationship with the Foundation was not for lack of effort on Vega's part. Vega explicitly "urged" the Foundation "to keep clear accounts to ensure [Graterol-Garrido's] financial misconduct … is not repeated."

Further harm suffered by Graterol-Garrido has come from her resulting decision to affirmatively disclose Vega's online allegations when applying to prospective positions. And Graterol-Garrido testified credibly that Vega's allegations has led her to cease using social media and impacted her willingness to pursue certain professional opportunities.

The Court also has considered the harm caused while mindful of the limited circulation of Vega's social media postings. Vega testified that both the Facebook Post and the Twitter Post were quickly removed by the social media services, and there is no evidence otherwise. The short period of time when these defamatory messages were viewable mitigates the damage they caused. Graterol-Garrido did not offer evidence as to the number of Vega's Facebook "friends" or Twitter "followers," and there is no reason to believe that her personal social media pages had particularly large viewerships.

At the same time, Vega has made many online allegations about Graterol-Garrido beyond the Facebook Post and the Twitter Post since the start of this litigation. She has also, at least to an extent, attempted to prevent her libelous posting on Twitter from being removed by company. Vega also implied that she has nothing to lose, given her current financial situation, which further warrants anxiety on Graterol-Garrido's part that Vega's defamatory conduct will continue going forward. Indeed, as noted above, Vega continued to make social media postings attacking Graterol-Garrido even after Graterol-Garrido commenced this litigation.

Considering all of these factors, the Court awards Graterol-Garrido $5,000 in damages for her injuries. The Court does not find that a further award of punitive damages is appropriate.

I hope the plaintiff was happy just because of the public exoneration, though I expect that it was a pretty expensive exoneration. Of course, the reference to Vega's having " implied that she has nothing to lose, given her current financial situation" suggests that a $5,000,000 award wouldn't have yielded practically different financial results than a $5,000 award.

Congratulations to Joshua B. Katz of Kent, Beatty & Gordon, LLP, who represented the plaintiff.