Wednesday, August 22, 2012

UPDATE: MN Appeals Court Tosses $60K Verdict Against Blogger

Map of Minnesota highlighting Hennepin CountyHennepin County (Photo credit: Wikipedia)In its 14-page decision this week in Jerry L. Moore v. John Hoff a/k/a Johnny Northside (Case No. A11-1923), the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed and remanded a trial judge's denial of a blogger's motion for judgment as a matter of law ("JMOL"), and overturned a $60,000 jury verdict on a tortious interference with contract claim on First Amendment grounds.

As previously reported here (see "TUOL" post 3/15/11), following a three-day trial in March 2010, a seven-member Hennepin County Jury awarded Moore, one-time director of the Jordan Area Community Council, $35,000 in lost wages and $25,000 emotional distress damages after the University of Minnesota terminated him from its Urban Research & Outreach/Engagement Center. Although Moore's defamation claims against Hoff based on the latter's June 2009, posts in his community development blog, The Adventures of Johnny Northside, went nowhere, the jury blamed Hoff's published remarks for Moore's dismissal.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Denise Reilly denied Hoff's  JMOL motion. At issue on appeal was whether a nondefamatory statement could underlie a tortious interference with contract claim and whether sufficient evidence existed to support the jury's tortious interference verdict without infringing on Hoff's First Amendment-protected blog posting.

Proving a tortious interference with contract claim requires the existence of a contract about which the alleged tortfeasor knows and intentionally, without justification, procures its breach, causing damages to the plaintiff. In a decision written by Judge Jill Flascamp Halbrooks, the Appeals Court ruled that a party cannot be held liable for tortious interference of contract for imparting truthful information to a third party.

"Because a tortious interference claim cannot be based upon true information and because the record does not contain sufficient evidence of conduct separate and distinct from Hoff's constitutionally protected speech to sustain the verdict," Judge Halbrooks wrote, "we conclude that the district court erred by denying Hoff's motion for JMOL. We therefore reverse and remand for the district court to enter judgment for Hoff."

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