Leagle.com publicly distributes a wide range of court opinions, precedential and unprecedented, across the country. Unlike Westlaw, Lexis, and Google Scholar, it is searchable on Google, so when a party’s name is Googled, an opinion referring to the party may come up.
[1.] John D. Thomas was involved Modares v. Thomas, which went all the way to the California Court of Appeals and came out badly for him. From the introduction to the opinion (which also appears in Legal):
John David Thomas and 184 Diamond, LLC (defendant), appeals from a default judgment after the trial court imposed termination sanctions against Thomas for abuse of the discovery process. After a default prove-up hearing, the court awarded plaintiff Farah Modares a total of $217,000 in compensatory damages against the defendants and $1 million in punitive damages against Thomas alone. Defendants argue that the trial court abused its discretion by terminating the sanction against Thomas because a lesser sanction would have been sufficient. They challenge the punitive damages award against Thomas because Modares presented insufficient evidence of Thomas’ net worth at trial, the punitive damages award was unconstitutionally excessive, and the award improperly excluded 184 Diamond, LLC, which was otherwise jointly and severally liable. with Thomas for compensatory damages.
We conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in imposing summary sanctions against Thomas for abuse of the discovery process. We also conclude that Modares failed to present admissible evidence of Thomas’s then-current financial condition sufficient for us to make a well-informed decision whether the punitive damages award was unconstitutionally excessive. We therefore reverse the judgment for punitive damages award and remand for a new default evidence-up hearing on the issue of the amount of punitive damages only. As modified, the judgment is affirmed.
The case was then remanded to the trial court:
Modares is entitled to punitive damages. The judgment is modified to strike the award of punitive damages in the amount of $1 million. The matter is remanded for a new default evidence-up hearing on the amount of punitive damages only. We direct the trial court to issue an order under Civil Code section 3295, subdivision (c), permitting Moderes to conduct discovery regarding Thomas’ current financial condition. As modified, the judgment is affirmed. Modarres will recover the costs of the appeal.
and on remand, the case settled (according to a later appellate decision, “Moderes and Thomas settled the case without involving the law firm [that had represented Modarres]alleged to have deprived the law firm of its fees”).
[2.] Now, the new case is filed and labeled on Tuesday Thomas v. Legal, Inc. (S.D. Cal.): Thomas is suing Liegel for defamation and for placing him in a false light based on his posting of a prior California Court of Appeal opinion (no allegation that the opinion itself was misrepresented). Here’s the logic:
Defendants have published and continue to publish information regarding a legal case against Plaintiff that leaves the false impression that a judgment has been entered against him, including fraud, when in fact the case was dismissed….
After the Court of Appeals ruled on the matter and remanded the case to the Superior Court, the case was dismissed with prejudice and the previous judgment was of no force and effect. The matter published by defendants fails to disclose this fact, and creates the false impression that a final judgment has been issued that Thomas is guilty of civil fraud.
Because of this publication, Legal falsely implied that Thomas had finally been convicted of civil fraud and was held liable for punitive damages.
The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, and “a preliminary and permanent injunction prohibiting the defendants from disclosing the matter in question unless there is a visible and clear explanation that the suit is dismissed.”
[3.] Now actually I think that posting an account of a government proceeding that suggests guilt without including actual conviction follow-up information for the proceedings could be truly defamatory. “[A]Accurately reporting a … charge … but failing, in the same article, to report a subsequent dismissal of the charge does not fall within the fair-report privilege.” (See my Defamation excluding criminal legal decisions For more on that.) And there’s an argument, which I made mine It is not your responsibility to continue distributing your own libel (pp. 343-46) Persons who host some material about the legal process have a (slightly oversimplified) duty to update them with such guilty follow-up decisions when they are on notice that follow-up decisions have been made. (However, this is subject to the statute of limitations, and the statute of limitations here runs longer; plus 47 USC § 230 may also exclude such liability, where Leagle posts come from other sources, such as government sites.)
But not here guilty Decision, in the sense that an acquittal or conviction may be reversed. After the Court of Appeals upheld a judgment, the parties settled the case; It is not a judicial decision that the defendant was actually not guilty. To cite a case where this problem came up (although the material was reposted), Petro-Lubricant Testing v. Adelman (NJ 2018),
Wintermute argues that Adelman should be fired [fair report] Privilege because the amended article failed to report that Wintermitt and LaForgia had settled the suit. The disposition of the case, however, is not a judgment of the truth or falsity of the allegations in the complaint. The fair report privilege cannot protect a publication that merely reprints allegations but not favorable judgments. A settlement, however, is different from a favorable judgment. A settlement generally “vaguely reflects the merits of the action” and does not determine whether the allegations are true or false.
And the court cited a California case that argued, “Generally, dismissal resulting from a settlement does not constitute a favorable determination. [for purposes of the malicious prosecution tort] Because ‘. . . dismissal casts a shadow on the merits of the action because it resulted from the joint action of the parties, thus leaving open the question of the defendant’s guilt or innocence.'” Pender v. Radin (Cal. App. 1994). Sound analysis, I think.
Thus it seems to me that Thomas should not prevail in this case. I’m not sure Leagle will appear to defend itself: its Arkansas corporate chapter has been withdrawn, and when I looked it up recently in my research I couldn’t reach anyone there. But I think Thomas’ claim is sufficiently frivolous as a matter of law that the court should deny any motion for default judgment that Thomas might bring.