Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Roller Derby Queen Prevails In Legal Battle Over a Romance Gone Sour

Stacey Blitsch

I never expected to have much in common with a roller derby queen. But by golly, it has happened. And that's because lawyers have tried to muzzle both Stacey Blitsch and Legal Schnauzer--without much success, so far.

Regular readers know that North Carolina lawyer Chad Essick has threatened me three times with legal action because of my reporting about Ted Rollins, CEO of Charlotte-based Campus Crest Communities. What has been my great sin? Reporting accurately and thoroughly about Rollins' actions connected to a peculiar divorce action he brought against Sherry Carroll Rollins, his ex wife who now lives in Alabama with the couple's two daughters. Since Ted Rollins has no facts or law to support a claim against me, he has resorted to threats from a lawyer who apparently has too much time on his hands.

Blitsch has faced similar efforts to silence her voice on the Web, although under very different circumstances from mine. Blitsch's antagonist, like mine, has only succeeded in bringing heightened attention to his own questionable actions.

Who is Stacey Blitsch? She's a real-life roller derby queen, based in California. As you can tell from the photo above, she cuts quite an impressive swath.

How did Blitsch get crossways with a lawyer? First, she got dumped by her boyfriend, a New York lawyer named Matthew Couloute Jr. Then she discovered that Couloute had also dumped another woman, Amanda Ryncarz. The two women decided to go on the Web site and air their grievances about the lawyerly Lothario.

Couloute was not amused. He responded by filing a federal lawsuit for tortious interference with business relations. He amended the complaint to add a claim for defamation. But U.S. District Judge Harold Baer, of New York, booted the lawsuit last week, stating that Couloute did not have grounds to support either claim.

Gloria Allred, flanked by Amanda
Ryncarz and Stacy Blitsch
How did Blitsch and Ryncarz manage to fight off their former legal lover? Well, it probably helped that their case attracted the attention of Gloria Allred, the high-profile discrimination lawyer from Los Angeles. Allred's star power might have helped her clients prevail in court.

It's also possible that Blitsch and Ryncarz prevailed because Couloute had a crappy case. And it appears that he is exactly what Blitsch and Ryncarz say he is--a world-class cad, with a big-time sense of entitlement.

To be sure, the women lambasted Couloute on Legal analyst Jonathan Turley has a nice, tongue-in-cheek take on the contretemps:

We have previously discussed the problems of lawyers with being attacked by ex-girlfriends for their alleged bad relationships. The latest such story involves attorney Matthew Couloute Jr. who sued a former roller derby queen Stacey Blitsch and another ex for their posts about him at The site still has a place for Couloute comments. Now, federal Judge Harold Baer has tossed out the defamation lawsuit as improperly based on protected opinion. In this case, the opinion that Couloute is a collossal loser. [Just for the record, I want to note that I have not dated Couloute and that I am merely repeating the opinion of those who have dated Couloute].

Couloute was called a cheating “scum” who, according to Amanda Ryncarz, dumped her over the phone five days before marrying another woman. Blitsch has a son with Couloute.

In a nine-page opinion, Judge Baer easily dispensed with Couloute's claim for tortious interference. Wrote the judge:

Under New York law, to establish a claim for tortious interference with prospective business relations, a plaintiff must establish: “(1) business relations with a third party; (2) the defendant’s interference with those business relations; (3) the defendant acted with the sole purpose of harming the plaintiff or used dishonest, unfair or improper means; and (4) injury to the business relationship.” DiFolco v. MSNBC Cable L.L.C., 622 F.3d 104, 114 (2d Cir. 2010).

For Plaintiff’s tortious interference claim to survive, Plaintiff must allege that Defendants “directly interfered with the [identified] business relationship by directing some activities towards the third party and convinc[ing] the third party not to enter into a business relationship with the plaintiff.” Zdenek Marek v. Old Navy (Apparel), Inc., 348 F. Supp. 2d 275, 280 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) . . . Plaintiff fails to point to any client, current or prospective, about which Defendants had knowledge and to whom their comments were directed. . . . Plaintiff would have the Court infer from the Defendants’comments (accusing Plaintiff of being a “liar” and a “cheater”) and the fact that Defendants “must have known that Plaintiff had current clients” that Defendants specifically targeted those clients. . . . Plaintiff provides no cases to support the idea that potentially harmful statements posted on a website such as this one, coupled with the knowledge that the statements might be read by third parties, is sufficient to show that one or more relationships were intentionally interfered with by Defendants.

Why did Couloute not bring the defamation claim in his initial complaint? Truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim, and we suspect that the lawyer knew discovery would show that the women's claims were true. Aside from that, Judge Baer had no problems dispensing with Couloute's defamation claim, as well:

The key question here is whether, drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Plaintiff, the comments contain assertions of fact or opinion. The New York Court of Appeals distilled the following three factors which courts are instructed to consider in determining whether a statement is one of fact or opinion:

(1) whether the specific language in issue has a precise meaning which is readily understood; (2) whether the statements are capable of being proven true or false; and (3) whether either the full context of the communication in which the statement appears or the broader social context and surrounding circumstances are such as to signal [to] readers or listeners that what is being read or heard is likely to be opinion, not fact.

Did Couloute meet his burden? Judge Baer ruled that he did not:

With the possible exception of the statement that Plaintiff “rents or finances everything and owns absolutely nothing”--a statement clearly capable of being proven true or false--the comments, even if viewed in isolation, are opinion. Defendants state that Plaintiff "lied and cheated all through his 40 years of life," and that, because Plaintiff is an attorney, "he's great at lying and covering it up without batting an eye." Comments such as these are clearly hyperbolic. And when viewed within the larger context of the website on which they were posted, there can be no doubt that a reasonable reader would understand the comments to be opinion. As Defendants note, is "specifically intended to provide a forum for people to air their grievances about dishonest romantic partners. . . . " The average reader would know that the comments are "emotionally charged rhetoric" and the "opinions of disappointed lovers."

The case of the roller derby queen scorned does raise at least one serious issue. I'm all for free speech in general, but the notion of folks taking to the Web to bash someone because of a romance gone sour is, well . . . a little disarming. I'm working on 21-plus years of marriage and don't plan to re-enter the dating scene anytime soon, but I could see where the Liars/Cheaters Web site might ensnare folks who aren't liars or cheaters at all. Maybe they just declined an invitation for a date, and the other party decided to "make them pay."

Judge Baer seemed to acknowledge that such Web sites are ripe sources of potential abuse:

Of course the Internet makes it more likely that a greater number of people will read comments such as these, and thereby amplify the impact they may have on a person, but this does not change the underlying nature of the comments themselves. See Sandals Resorts Intern., Ltd v. Google, Inc., 925 N.Y.S.2d 407, 415-16 (N.Y. App. Div. 2011) (noting the Internet "encourage[es] a freewheeling, anything-goes writing style," and that "readers give less credence to allegedly defamatory remarks published on the Internet than to similar remarks made in other contexts."

In spite of my reservations about, I'm pleased that the roller derby queen and her friend prevailed. It would be nice, also, if this case helped convince Ted Rollins' lawyer to find something constructive to do with his time.

To celebrate one victory for justice, let's enjoy a live performance of Jim Croce's "Roller Derby Queen."

No comments: