Daily Decisions: Meritless Defamation Claim Results in Sanctions

Dee Ann Stiles used to be the Secretary for the Shore Woods Homeowners’ Association (“Association”). Gerald Kearney was a former member of the Association’s Executive Board (prior to Stiles’s tenure) and apparently he didn’t think Stiles was doing a very good job. Kearney wrote some “hostile” emails to the Board claiming that there were “inherent problems” with Stiles’s work on the Board and specifically stating that her meeting minutes were “written from the point of view of someone with an axe to grind” and telling Stiles, “Do your job even-handedly or step down.”

So of course, Stiles sued for defamation! Unfortunately (for her) the trial court concluded that she failed to offer any “credible or cognizable evidence” regarding (1) the falsity of Kearney’s statements, (2) whether the statements were privileged, or (3) her claimed damages. That’s no good. The court “concluded that the complaint was not well-grounded in fact or law and that Young [Stiles’s attorney] failed to conduct a reasonable inquiry before filing the complaint.” Accordingly, the trial court awarded sanctions against Stiles and Young under CR 11 and RCW 4.84.185.

Stiles appealed. The Court of Appeals, in Dee Ann Stiles v. Gerald Kearney (Division 2, February 29, 2012) (published May 22, 2012), affirmed the trial court in full. The Court of Appeals’ decision was initially unpublished, which likely explains why the Court’s analysis of the sanction issue is very superficial. Basically, the Court sets out the general legal standards, states that the trial court properly recognized those standards, and that the decision to impose sanctions based on a “well-written six-page memorandum opinion” was not an abuse of discretion.

A few points got a bit more discussion from the Court of Appeals: During oral argument on Kearney’s motion for summary judgment, the trial court commented on Stiles’s lawyer’s argument in support of her claim: “[Young] makes a pretty darn – it’s a good argument, a great argument that just by saying someone does their job in a bias way, you’re – it’s libelous per se. It’s not. I can’t accept that.” Stiles argued that her argument could not be great and “manifestly unreasonable” such that it would support sanctions. The Court of Appeals, however, disagreed (without much discussion).

Also, the trial court said: “I’m not sure what factual inquiry she would conduct that she didn’t” (in connection with the filing of the complaint). The Court of Appeals noted that the problem with Stiles’s complaint wasn’t the factual inquiry, but the reality that the facts discovered did not support a defamation claim under the law.

Stiles did raise an interesting mitigation argument in response to Kearney’s claimed fees. Kearney never moved to dismiss under CR 12(b)(6). Instead, he engaged in some discovery and then won on summary judgment. Stiles argued that if her claims were really so meritless, then Kearney should have mitigated his damages by moving to dismiss right out of the box, instead of incurring fees related to discovery. But the Court of Appeals rejected this argument, relying largely on Washington State’s liberal pleading requirements and rejection of the “heightened” Iqbal standard now applied in federal courts. Such a motion may not have been successful under Washington’s standards!

Lastly, the Court of Appeals held that Kearney properly received attorneys’ fees for defending against Stiles’s action, despite the fact that he — a practicing Washington lawyer — defended the action pro se. I dunno; that doesn’t seem fair. In other settings, pro se non-attorneys don’t generally get their fees under attorneys’ fees provisions. (See here!) Sure, as the Court of Appeals recognized, “pro se attorneys could recover attorney fees . . . because they must take time from their practices to prepare and appear as any other lawyer would.” Well, you know who else needs to take time from their jobs to prepare and appear pro se? Everyone else!

Though, I suppose one point of attorneys’ fees provisions is to incentivize plaintiffs to actual retain attorneys, with all the concomitant benefits of a cleaner and better-presented case, which are good for everyone in the court system. So maybe it makes sense on that basis.

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One thought on “Daily Decisions: Meritless Defamation Claim Results in Sanctions

  1. Pingback: The [No Specific Day] Mash-up: June 1, 2012 | Ziff Blog

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