That's ironic because we've written 10 years worth of posts here at Legal Schnauzer about solid citizens, from all walks of life, who courts greeted with unlawful rulings, even hostility. (See Don Siegelman, Sherry Carroll Rollins, Paul Minor, Linda Upton, and Carol Tovich Shuler, for examples.)
Ramos sued the Capital Gazette for its coverage of a 2011 criminal harassment case, where he pleaded guilty and received a 90-day suspended jail sentence, with 18 months of supervised probation. The charge stemmed from Ramos' vulgar and threatening behavior toward a former high school classmate, a young woman, he encountered on Facebook.
Staff writer Nick Hartley wrote a story for the Gazette about the harassment case, titled "Jarrod wants to be your friend," and Ramos responded by suing Hartley, editor and publisher Thomas L. Marquardt, and the newspaper's parent company.
Ramos represented himself, pro se, and one problem with his lawsuit should have been readily apparent to anyone with the slightest knowledge of defamation law -- or the ability to look up central elements of the tort at a library, or on the Web. Journalists generally are legally "privileged" to report on official proceedings and public documents -- upon which many of our Legal Schnauzer posts are based.
That means, even if false information is presented in a court case or other official proceeding, a journalist is privileged to report it, as long as he does so accurately and with fairness -- in other words, if he reports both sides of the case, as presented in court.
In Alabama, the privilege is spelled out statutorily at Code of Alabama 13A-11-161. At case law, Wilson v. Birmingham Post-Herald, 482 So. 2d 1209 (1986) spells out the privilege:
It is undisputed in the instant case that the Post-Herald news report at issue constitutes a fair and accurate report of the statements made by two Cuban refugees to the Birmingham Police Department in the course of an official investigation and summarized in the official police incident report. [Reporter Kathy] Biele was present during the interrogation. According to the sworn affidavits of two police officers present, the news report at issue accurately reflects the investigation and the police incident report. There is no suggestion in the evidence to the contrary. The news report, therefore, is conditionally privileged under § 13A-11-161 and the common law.
Not only did Ramos ignore the journalist's privilege to report on public and official proceedings, he brought a case that, overall, was preposterously weak. How weak was it? That question can be answered by examining the appellate case, Ramos v. Hartley, et al (MD Court of Special Appeals, 2015). Consider some of the issues raised in the appellate opinion:
(1) Ramos failed to serve defendants with the complaint, filed an amended complaint after the statute of limitations had expired, and provided the court with almost no information:
On July 23, 2012, just one week before the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations, the appellant filed his initial complaint, charging the appellees with defamation, in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County ("the July Complaint"). The appellant failed to serve a copy of the complaint on the appellees. . .
There was no supporting documentation or affidavit submitted with the complaint. On October 9, 2012, and over two months after the statute of limitations for a defamation claim had expired, the appellant filed a fuller complaint ("the October complaint"). Instead of four bare-bones paragraphs, the October complaint was one of 22 pages. The October complaint also added the charge of invasion of privacy.
(2) Due to the service and statute-of-limitations issues, the appellate court expressed doubt that Ramos had any case at all, much less a viable defamation claim:
Although we have serious reservations over whether the October complaint can be found to relate back to the July complaint and is, therefore, even cognizable, it is completely unnecessary to anguish over this nuance in the filing chronology. But see, Crowe v. Houseworth, 272 Md. 481, 485-86 (1974); Fischer v. Longest, 99 Md. App. 368 (1994). Even the fuller October complaint, assuming its viability, palpably fails to state, as the hearing judge found and ruled, a chargeable offense. One solid reason for affirming the trial court is enough. Scott v. Jenkins, 345 Md. 21, 28 (1997) ("Plaintiff must allege sufficient facts that, if prove true, would support every element of the asserted claim.")
(3) Despite the weakness of Ramos' case, trial judge Maureen M. Lamasney gave him a hearing and listened respectfully to his arguments. We've seen signs for years that many citizens, who come to court with valid claims or defenses, often are not treated in such fashion:
On November 26, 2012, the appellees filed a Motion by Defendants to Dismiss with Prejudice the Complaint and a Request for Hearing. A full hearing was conducted by Judge Maureen M. Lamasney on March 29, 2013. The appellant's complaint was that he had been defamed in a newspaper article about his having pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal harassment. At the motion hearing, Judge Lamasney probed the appellant to point out a single statement in the article that was actually false or to give a single example of how he had been harmed by the article. He could not do so. Judge Lamasney's ruling was clear.
(4) Ramos could not point to any false information in the Capital Gazette article. No kidding. Here is a colloquy between the court and Ramos:
"THE COURT: "All right. Mr. Ramos, I'm going to grant the defendant's motion to dismiss this case. And it will be dismissed with prejudice. And I'm going to grant it for the following reasons: You are required in your complaint to state a claim with sufficient specificity.
"MR. RAMOS: Your Honor —
"THE COURT: I'm talking now.
"MR. RAMOS: Yes, I'm sorry.
"THE COURT: And dismissal is proper only if the facts and inferences, even if proven, would not entitle the plaintiff to relief. And that is what I am finding in your case, that you do not lay out a prima facie case for defamation or for invasion of privacy, or being placed in the false light.
"And the reason I'm finding that is that there is absolutely not one piece of evidence, or an assertion by you that the statement was false. . . .
"You know, I understand exactly how you feel. I think people who are the subject of newspaper articles, whoever they may be, feel that there is a requirement that they be placed in the best light, or they have an opportunity to have the story reported to their satisfaction, or have the opportunity to have however much input they believe is appropriate.
"But that's simply not true. There is nothing in those complaints that prove that anything that was published about you is, in fact, false. "It all came from a public record. It was of the result of a criminal conviction. And it cannot give rise to a defamation suit.
(5) The court explained, fully and succinctly, why Ramos' lawsuit was dismissed -- and the explanation was on point with the law:
"MR. RAMOS: If I understand correctly, then the basis is that there's not a showing of falsity?
"THE COURT: Correct.
"MR. RAMOS: And rather that there is an application of privilege.
"THE COURT: Correct, both that the article was simply not defamatory, that it was based on public record, that you haven't alleged that it was false, and that the article appears to be substantially accurate, and it would fall into the privilege which would make any complaint unsustainable, because they reported a criminal case. They reported a matter of public interest."
(6) The appellate court summarized the reasons that Ramos' claim was a clunker from the outset:
A discussion of defamation law would be an exercise in futility, because the appellant fails to come close to alleging a case of defamation. In his five-page brief, the appellant devotes two and one-half pages to legal argument. He never alleges that any basic fact contained in the article about his guilty plea is actually false. He claims only that "Hartley's column fails the test of fairness because he editorialized on the story's meaning." There is no allegation of any specific harm that he suffered as a result of the article. He simply described the harm as "incalculable, unforeseen, and potentially unknowable." That does not do it.
The appellant is pro se. A lawyer would almost certainly have told him not to proceed with this case. It reveals a fundamental failure to understand what defamation law is and, more particularly, what defamation law is not. The appellant is aggrieved because the newspaper story about his guilty plea assumed that he was guilty and that the guilty plea was, therefore, properly accepted. He is aggrieved because the story was sympathetic toward the harassment victim and was not equally understanding of the harassment perpetrator. The appellant wanted equal coverage of his side of the story. He wanted a chance to put the victim in a bad light, in order to justify and explain why he did what he did. That, however, is not the function of defamation law.
The appellant was charged with a criminal act. The appellant perpetrated a criminal act. The appellant plead guilty to having perpetrated a criminal act. The appellant was punished for his criminal act. He is not entitled to equal sympathy with his victim and may not blithely dismiss her as a "bipolar drunkard." He does not appear to have learned his lesson.