Case That Upended Truth Defense in Libel Actions Ends With Jury Verdict for Defendant

In a closely watched case that challenged (at least in Massachusetts) our long held understanding that truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim, the jury has returned a verdict for the defendant, finding that it acted without actual malice when it sent an email to its employees stating -- truthfully -- that one of its salesman had been terminated because he violated the company's travel and expense policies.

The case, Noonan v. Staples, Inc., D. Mass, No. 06-10716, involved Staples, the office supply chain, and one of its former employees, Alan Noonan.  Back in February, we reported that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit had held that Noonan could hold Staples liable for defamation based on a truthful email a superior sent to employees explaining the reason for Noonan's termination, so long as he could prove that the email was sent with "actual malevolent intent or ill will."  Not surprisingly, the First Circuit's decision sent shock waves through the media defense bar, with Robert Ambrogi, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, characterizing it as "the most dangerous libel decision in decades."

The First Circuit's decision was based on a 1902 Massachusetts statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 92, which states that truth is a defense to libel unless "actual malice is proved."  A 1998 decision of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Shaari v. Harvard Student Agencies, ruled the statute unconstitutional when applied to statements of public concern, but the First Circuit refused to consider whether the SJC's reasoning in Shaari extends to statements of purely private concern, explaining in a footnote that Staples failed to properly raise the issue of the statute's constitutionality in its initial briefing.  (In March, we joined a coalition of media organizations in filing an amicus curiae brief urging the First Circuit to grant Staples' petition for rehearing en banc, which it ultimately denied.) 

After remand, the case proceeded to a jury trial in Boston.  While it's not clear from the case docket how the judge charged the jury with regard to the question of actual malice, it appears that the parties fought over the definition, as evidenced by the objections Staples filed at the start of the trial in which they argued that "'actual malice' under the Statute has a narrow and distinct meaning: actual malevolent intent, hatred, or ill will toward the plaintiff." (Note: this definition differs from the far more stringent definition of "actual malice" required by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).)

Late last week, the jury, in a one-page general verdict form, found in favor of Staples on Noonan's defamation claim. 

More coverage of the verdict is available on David Johnson's Digital Media Lawyer Blog and Dan Kennedy's Media Nation.


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