$60,000 Damages for Blogging the Truth About Someone, Intending to Get the Person Fired

I blogged about the Johnny Northside case (Moore v. Hoff) when the verdict came down, but there’s now a moderately detailed trial court opinion refusing to set the verdict aside. Here’s an excerpt from a Minneapolis Star-Tribune article about this latest development:

The jury ruled last March that [John] Hoff’s scathing blog post amounted to actively interfering with [Jerry] Moore’s job at the U, even though Hoff’s statements were true when he linked Moore to high-profile mortgage fraud.

The jury awarded Moore $35,000 for lost wages and $25,000 for emotional distress….

Moore, former executive director of the Jordan Area Community Council, was hired in early 2009 at the U’s Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center to study mortgage foreclosures.

When Hoff found out about the hire, he wrote a post accusing Moore of being involved in a “high-profile fraudulent mortgage” that was one of several resulting in a 16-year prison sentence for former real estate agent Larry Maxwell. Moore was not charged in that case.

Hoff took partial credit for Moore’s firing in a later blog post, to which Moore responded with his suit.

As I wrote in March, people are constitutionally entitled to speak the truth about others, even with the goal of trying to get them fired. (The tort actually requires either knowledge that such a result is practically certain or a purpose of producing such a result, but I take it that here the allegation is that Hoff wanted Moore to get fired.) The First Amendment constrains the interference with business relations tort, just as it constrains the infliction of emotional distress and other torts. See NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. (1982); Blatty v. New York Times Co. (Cal. 1986) (speech constitutionally protected against a libel claim is also protected against an interference with business relations claim); Paradise Hills Assocs. (Cal. Ct. App. 1991) (same); Delloma v. Consolidated Coal Co. (7th Cir. 1993) (“permitting recovery for tortious interference based on truthful statements would seem to raise significant First Amendment problems”); Jefferson Cty. Sch. Dist. No. R-1 v. Moody’s Investor’s Services (10th Cir. 1999) (holding that interference with business relations and interference with contract claims can’t be based on expressions of opinion). The same should apply to the closely related interference with contract tort. See, e.g., Jefferson Cty. Sch. Dist.

Perhaps because of this, the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 772(a) provides that, “One who intentionally causes a third person not to perform a contract or not to enter into a prospective contractual relation with another does not interfere improperly with the other’s contractual relation, by giving the third person … truthful information.” See also, among many other cases, Walnut Street Assocs., Inc. v. Brokerage Concepts, Inc. (Pa. Super. 2009) (so holding); Recio v. Evers (Neb. 2009) (likewise). Minnesota seems to have accepted § 772(a) as well, see Glass Service Co. v. State Farm Ins. Co. (Minn. Ct. App. 1995); Fox Sports Net North, LLC v. Minnesota Twins Partnership (8th Cir. 2003). But even if Minnesota courts take the opposite view as a matter of state law, such a view would be preempted by the First Amendment.

But the trial court’s opinion doesn’t discuss either of these arguments, even though Hoff’s lawyer raised both in his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. (I’m told that the arguments were indeed raised at trial, and thus haven’t been waived; and the judge’s opinion doesn’t mention them at all, even to say that they had been waived.) I’m told that an appeal is forthcoming, and I hope the decision is reversed on appeal. In any case, here’s the heart of the trial court opinion:

Plaintiff Jerry L. Moore[ brought suit] for defamation, interference with contractual relationships, and interference with prospective advantage against Defendant John Hoff. A jury trial was held … [and] the jury … returned a verdict in favor of Defendant on Plaintiff’s defamation claim, and in favor of Plaintiff on the remaining two claims. Specifically, the jury found Defendant intentionally interfered with Plaintiff’s employment contract and interfered with Plaintiffs prospective employment advantage…. Defendant filed a notice of motion and motion for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial….

When considering a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the district court must take into account all of the evidence in the case, view that evidence in a light most favorable to the jury verdict, and not weigh the evidence or judge the credibility of the witnesses…. [J]udgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 may only be granted “when a jury verdict has no reasonable support in fact or is contrary to law.” …

Plaintiff’s Complaint alleged that Defendant intentionally interfered with his contractual rights by actively working to get Plaintiff fired from his position at the University of Minnesota by, among other things, contacting individuals at the University of Minnesota, making disparaging remarks about Plaintiff, and encouraging others to do the same. To establish a claim for tortious interference of contract, a plaintiff must show: (1) the existence of a contract; (2) knowledge of the contract; (3) intentional procurement of the contract’s breach; (4) absence of justification; and (5) damages caused by the breach. Similarly, a claim for tortious interference with prospective advantage requires a showing that: (l) the defendant intentionally and improperly interfered with the prospective contractual relation, (2) causing pecuniary harm resulting from loss of the benefits of the relation, and (3) the interference either induced or otherwise caused a third person not to enter into or continue the prospective relation or prevented the continuance of the prospective relation….

[T]he Court heard direct testimony regarding Defendant’s active involvement in getting Plaintiff fired by contacting leaders at the University of Minnesota and threatening to launch a negative public relations campaign if Plaintiff remained in their employment. By way of example, Don Allen testified that he sent an email to the University of Minnesota, at Defendant’s behest, threatening negative publicity and lobbying to get Plaintiff fired. In addition to Mr. Allen’s direct testimony, the jury also heard circumstantial evidence supporting the jury’s verdict. The Court heard testimony that Plaintiff was terminated from his position at the University of Minnesota one day after transmission of the email from Mr. Allen. Furthermore, during this same time period, Defendant acknowledged that it was his goal to get Plaintiff fired and that he was working “behind the scenes” to do so. After the fact, Defendant took personal responsibility for Plaintiff s termination and announced his ongoing, active involvement in the University’s actions. The direct evidence, combined with the inferences drawn from the circumstantial evidence presented, supports the jury’s verdict….

During the course of the trial, the jury was asked to consider whether a particular statement [“Repeated and specific evidence in Hennepin County District Court shows that Jerry Moore was involved in a high-profile fraudulent mortgage at 1564 Hillside Ave. N.”] was true or false for the purposes of assessing Plaintiffs defamation c1aim. The jury determined that the statement was not false. With his current motion, Defendant argues that the jury’s award in favor of Plaintiff on the tortious interference claims were premised solely upon the same statement that formed the basis of Plaintiff’s defamation claim. Defendant does not present any evidence in support of this argument, nor does the Court find it necessary to invade the province of the jury.

It is not the Court’s function to determine on what theory the jury arrived at its verdict. Instead, it is the Court’s responsibility to interpret the special verdict form “and harmonize the jury’s responses where possible.” Thus, the Court must sustain the verdict “on any reasonable theory of evidence.” By special verdict, the jury found Defendant’s statement was not false, but that his conduct, taken as a whole, amounted to an intentional interference with Plaintiff’s employment contract and prospective employment advantage….

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