Friday, October 5, 2012
Defamation Suit Over ‘Deadbeat Dad’ Reference Held SLAPP
Panel Says Online Comments by Mother, Grandmother of Plaintiff’s Child Were Opinions
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Two women who referred to a San Diego man, in an online posting, as a “criminal and a deadbeat dad” who “may be taking steroids” were expressing protected opinions and cannot be liable for defamation, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. One affirmed a San Diego Superior Court judge’s ruling that the suit by Darren D. Chaker against Wendy and Nicole Mateo was a strategic lawsuit against public participation. The justices agreed with Judge Timothy Taylor that the suit arose from speech on a public issue, and that the action is barred by the First Amendment.
The evidence, Justice Patricia Benke explained, showed that Nicole Mateo became pregnant during a brief relationship with Chaker, resulting in contentious paternity and child support litigation in Mateo’s home state of Texas. In 2010, comments about Chaker and his forensics business, including claims that he was involved in fraud and prostitution, as well as the deadbeat dad and steroid references, began showing up in the comments sections of websites such as Topix, where he had posted a profile, and the Ripoff Report.
Chaker attributed some of those statements to Nicole Mateo and her mother Wendy Mateo, and sued both of them, as well as others. Wendy Mateo brought an anti-SLAPP motion, which the judge granted.
Benke, like the trial judge, rejected Chaker’s argument that the allegedly defamatory statements related to a purely private dispute, thus falling outside the scope of the statute. The justice cited Wilbanks v. Wolk (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 883, which held that the Internet is a public forum, as well as cases holding that public statements about private conduct—such as criticism of the treatment of young athletes by their coaches— may be matters of public interest for purposes of Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.16.
“Like the court in Wilbanks, we view the Internet as an electronic bulletin board open to literally billions of people all over the world,” the jurist wrote. “...The Internet is a classic public forum which permits an exchange of views in public about everything from the great issues of war, peace, and economic development to the relative quality of the chicken pot pies served at competing family restaurants in a single small neighborhood.”
She went on to say:
“The statements posted to the ‘Ripoff Report’ Web site about Chaker’s character and business practices plainly fall within in the rubric of consumer information about Chaker’s ‘Counterforensics’ business and were intended to serve as a warning to consumers about his trustworthiness.”
By posting his profile on Topix, she added, Chaker “made his character a matter of public interest as the term has been interpreted.”
Because the comments deal with a matter of public interest, Benke wrote, the burden shifted to Chaker to show that he was likely to prevail. But because the First Amendment protects opinion, she said, he could not make such a showing.
Opinion, Not Fact
Citing a number of recent cases holding similar online comments to be opinion, rather than assertions of fact, the justice said the statements challenged by Chaker had to be understood in the context of the litigation between him and Nicole Mateo, particularly since they “were made on Internet Web sites which plainly invited the sort of exaggerated and insulting criticisms of businesses and individuals which occurred here.”
Attacking Chaker as “dishonest and scary,” the justice said, “is on its face nothing more than a negative, but nonactionable opinion.
A different result might have been reached, Benke suggested, if, instead of mere generalized attacks on the plaintiff’s character, the defendants made allegations of specific wrongdoing at specified times and places.
The reference to Chaker as a “criminal,” the justice added, was arguably defamatory, but is nonactionable because Chaker was convicted of a crime, although the conviction was expunged.
The case is Chaker v. Mateo, D058753
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company