‘Substantial Truth’ Defeats Wisconsin Plaintiff’s Tortious Interference Suit – 7th Circuit

In Wesbrook v. Ulrich 2016 WL 6123534, the Seventh Circuit examined the reach of the truth defense to a tortious interference with contract action stemming from a bitter dispute between a prominent Wisconsin medical clinic and one of its high-level employees.

The plaintiff sued a former co-worker and ex-supervisor for tortious interference with contract claiming the two worked in concert to engineer the plaintiff’s firing from the clinic.  The plaintiff claimed the defendants repeatedly made critical statements about him to third parties that resulted in his being ostracized by clinic staff and ultimately let go.  The District Court granted summary judgment for the clinic and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Reasons:

To prove tortious interference with contract in Wisconsin, the plaintiff must show (1) a valid contract or a prospective contractual relationship with a third party, (2) defendant’s interference with that relationship, (3) interference by the defendant that was intentional, (4) a causal connection between the interference and damages, and (5) the defendant wasn’t justified or privileged to interfere.

To sue a co-worker for tortious interference, the plaintiff must show (1) that the employer did not benefit from the co-worker’s/defendant’s statement, and (2) the co-worker’s act was independently tortious (i.e., fraudulent or defamatory).

Whether conduct or a statement is privileged is a fact-driven question that looks at the nature, type and duration of the conduct and whether the conduct was fair under the circumstances.  But where the challenged statement is true, it is privileged as a matter of law.  There can be no cause of action aimed at a true statement; even one motivated by ill will toward a plaintiff.

The same holds for “substantially true” statements.  Even where a statement isn’t 100% accurate, so long as it’s true in most of its particulars, it’s still privileged and will defeat a tortious interference claim.  Tort law does not demand “artificial precision” in common use of language.

Here, the defendants’ challenged statements concerning plaintiff were substantially true.  Defendants’ verbal and written assertions that plaintiff had an autocratic management style, threatened his subordinates, and that several employees had lodged complaints against him were true enough to defeat plaintiff’s claims.  While there were arguably some factual specifics that were either embellished or omitted from the statements, the Court viewed their substance as sufficiently accurate to negate plaintiff’s tortious interference suit.

The Seventh Circuit also based its decision granting summary judgment for the defendants on policy grounds.  It reasoned that if a plaintiff could sue a co-worker every time he believed that co-worker instigated or contributed to the firing decision, it would swallow up the general rule that at-will employees cannot sue for breach of contract where they are fired without warning or cause.

Afterwords:

1/ An interesting case in that it examines the tortious interference tort in the factually anomalous setting of an at-will employee suing his co-workers instead of his employer after a discharge;

2/ The key holding from the case is that truth is a defense not only to defamation but also to tortious interference with contract under Wisconsin law;

3/ A statement’s truth is construed flexibly: it doesn’t have to be completely accurate.  Even if there are exaggerated aspects of a statement, so long as the statement meets the substantially true test, the speaker will be privileged to tortiously interfere.

Commercial Tenant’s Promise to Refund Broker Commissions Barred by Statute of Frauds – IL First Dist.

The plaintiff property owner in Peppercorn 1248 LLC v. Artemis DCLP, LLP, 2016 IL App (1st) 143791-U, sued a corporate tenant and its real estate brokers for return of commission payments where the tenant never took possession under a ten-year lease for a Chicago daycare facility.  Shortly after the lease was signed, the tenant invoked a licensing contingency and terminated the lease.

The lease conditioned tenant’s occupancy on the tenant securing the required City zoning and parking permits.  If the tenant was unable to obtain the licenses, it could declare the lease cancelled.  When the tenant refused to take possession, the plaintiff sued to recoup the commission payment.

Affirming summary judgment for the broker defendants, the Court addressed some recurring contract formation and enforcement issues prevalent in commercial litigation along with the “interference” prong of the tortious interference with contract claim.

In Illinois, where a contracting party is given discretion to perform a certain act, he must do so in good faith: the discretion must be exercised “reasonably,” with a “proper motive” and not “arbitrarily, capriciously or in a manner inconsistent with the reasonable expectations of the parties.” (73-74)

Here, there was no evidence the tenant terminated the lease in bad faith.  It could not get the necessary permits and so was incapable of operating a daycare business on the site. 

Next, the court found the plaintiff’s claim for breach of oral contract (based on the brokers’ verbal promise to refund the commission payments) unenforceable under the Statute of Frauds’ (“SOF”) suretyship rule. A suretyship exists where one party, the surety, agrees to assume an obligation of another person, the principal, to a creditor of the principal.

The SOF bars a plaintiff’s claim that seeks to hold a third party responsible for another’s debt where the third party did not promise to pay the debt in writing.

An exception to this rule is the “main purpose” defense. This applies where the “main purpose” of an oral promise is to materially benefit or advance the promisor’s business interests.  In such a case, an oral promise to pay another’s debt can be enforced.

The court declined to apply the main purpose exception here.  It noted that the brokers’ commission payments totaled less than $70K on a 10-year lease worth $1.4M. The large disparity between the commission and total lease payments through the ten-year term cut against the plaintiff’s main- purpose argument.

The plaintiff sued the corporate tenant for failing to return the commission payments to the brokers. Since the tenant and the broker defendants were separate parties, any promise by the tenant to answer for the brokers’ debt had to be in writing (by the tenant) to be enforceable.

The court also upheld summary judgment for the defendant on the plaintiff’s tortious interference count. (See here for tortious interference elements.)  A tortious interference with contract plaintiff must show, among other things, the defendant actively induced a breach of contract between plaintiff and another party.  However, the mere failure to act – without more – usually will not rise to the level of purposeful activity aimed at causing a breach.

The Court found one of the broker defendant’s alleged failure to help secure business permits for the tenant didn’t rise to the level of  intentional conduct that induced tenant’s breach of lease.  As a result, the plaintiff failed to offer evidence in support of the interference prong of its tortious interference claim sufficient to survive summary judgment.

Afterwords:

1/ A promise to pay another’s debt – a suretyship relationship – must be in writing to be enforceable under the SOF;

2/ A contractual relationship won’t give rise to a duty to disclose in a fraudulent concealment case unless there is demonstrated disparity in bargaining power between the parties;

3/ Tortious interference with contract requires active conduct that causes a breach of contract; a mere failure to act won’t normally qualify as sufficient contractual interference to be actionable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suit to Unmask Nasty Yelp! Reviewer Nixed by IL Court On First Amendment Grounds

With social media use apparently proliferating at breakneck speed, Brompton Building v. Yelp! Inc. (2013 IL App (1st) 120547-U)) is naturally post-worthy for its examination of whether hostile on-line reviews are actionable by the business recipients of the negative reviews.

A former tenant, “Diana Z.”, spewed some invective about an apartment management company where she questioned the management company’s business competence, integrity and people skills; especially as they related to billing and handling tenant rent payments.

The building owner (not the management company; by this time there was new management) sued Yelp!, the online review site, to unearth the reviewer’s identity through a Rule 224 petition for discovery so that it could later sue the reviewer for defamation and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage.  The court found the on-line review consisted of protected expressions of opinion and denied the petition for discovery. The plaintiff building owner appealed.

Result: Affirmed.

Rules/Reasoning:

Rule 224 allows a party to engage in discovery for the singular purpose of ascertaining the identity of one who may be responsible in damages.  The case law applying Rule 224 provides significant protection for anonymous individuals so that there private affairs aren’t intruded on.  The Rule’s mechanics: (1) the petition must be verified, (2) it must say why discovery is necessary, (3) it must be limited to determining the identity of someone who may be responsible in damages to the petitioner; and (4) there must be a court hearing to determine that the unidentified person is in fact possibly liable in damages to the petitioner.   ¶ 13.

The Rule 224 petition must set forth factual allegations sufficient to survive a Section 2-615 motion to dismiss (that is, does the proposed complaint state a cause of action?) in order to successfully seek pre-suit discovery.

In Illinois, defamation suits are defeated by the First Amendment to the US Constitution where the challenged statement isn’t factual (it’s an opinion, for instance) and the action is brought by (1) a public official, (2) a public figure, and (3) actions involving media defendants by private individuals.

There is no defamation for “loose, figurative language” that no person could reasonably believe states a fact. Whether something is sufficiently fact-based to underlie a defamation claim involves looking at (1) whether the statement has a readily understood and precise meaning, (2) whether the statement can be verified, and (3) whether its social or literary context signals that it is factual.  ¶ 20.

Illinois courts also espouse a policy of protecting site defendants like Yelp! from a potential torrent of lawsuits by recipients of negative postings.  In addition, the Federal Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. § 230) usually insulates a website like Yelp! from liability for publishing third party comments.

Here, the plaintiff failed to allege actionable defamation against Yelp!  While the court conceded that Diana Z.’s statement that the property manager was a liar and illegally charging tenants were factual on their face, when considered in context – the plaintiff couched her rant in hyperbolic speech – the statements were (protected) expressions of opinion. ¶¶ 29-30.

Since the plaintiff couldn’t make out an actual defamation claim against the anonymous Yelp! reviewer, its petition for discovery was properly denied.

Take-aways:

This is but one of many lawsuits involving vitriolic on-line criticism of businesses. In Illinois, the law is clear that to get a court to order a website operator to unveil an anonymous reviewer’s identity, the plaintiff must make a prima facie showing that the review is defamatory or had a tendency to cause third parties to dissociate from it and take their business elsewhere. Failing that, the court will deny a petition for discovery and the plaintiff will be left without a defendant or a remedy.