In Vaile v. Willick, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53619 (W.D. Va. July 14, 2008), a law student's defamation action against two lawyers survived the defendants' motion for summary judgment.
The defendants practiced family law in Nevada, and represented the plaintiff law student's ex-wife. The defendants represented the ex-wife and their children in a series of lawsuits in state and federal courts in Nevada to recover damages from Vaile's removal of the children from their mother's custody without her consent.
The plaintiff, who was in law school, decided to cease his defense to one of the civil actions in Nevada federal court, and as a result, the federal judge found against him and awarded compensatory damages of $688,500 and attorneys' fees and costs of $272, 255.
One of the defendants subsequently wrote to the plaintiff's law school to advise that had been found guilty of multiple violations of State and Federal law, including kidnapping, passport fraud, felony non-support of children and violation of RICO. The letter requested the law school to reconsider the plaintiff's fitness for continued enrollment, and attached a copy of the federal court's decision.
When the law school seemingly took no action, the co-defendant, who was an attorney with the same firm, sent a letter to the ABA to inform it of the law school's recalcitrance, repeated the summary of the Nevada decision, and attached a copy of the Nevada opinion. The letter called for the ABA to rescind the law school's accreditation as a result of the law school's failure to act.
The plaintiff filed an action for defamation, on the grounds that the letters were false and defamatory.
On cross-motions for summary judgment, the plaintiff argued that the letters were sent with malice and an intent to defame. Plaintiff argued that he has never been convicted of criminal offenses under state or federal law, and the letters were false and defamatory because they suggested that he was.
Defendants argued that the letters were true or at worst, substantially true, do not necessarily suggest a criminal conviction, and that when read as a whole with the attached judicial opinion, cannot be construed as defamatory per se.
The Court found that the letters were defamatory per se, because they impute the commission of a crime upon the plaintiff that he did not commit. Further, the letters were defamatory per se as a whole because they suggested that the plaintiff is unfit to continue at law school or lacks the integrity to continue in the study of the law or to perform the duties of a lawyer.
The Court found that the absolute privilege to publish matters of public record applied to the letters. The publication of public records to which everyone has a right of access is absolutely privileged in Virginia. The privilege is not lost if the record is incorrect or if it contains falsehoods. The privilege exists so long as the published account of the public record is a fair and substantially accurate account of the public record or proceeding. If the publication substantially departs from the proceeding or record, then the privilege is lost.
The Court found that the issue whether the letters substantially departed from the Nevada opinion, such that the privilege was lost, is a question left for the jury, because reasonable people could disagree whether the letters are an impartial and accurate account of the opinion.