Kelly Warner Law Firm Recounts Elizabeth Ethredge’s Defamation Lawsuit

“Texas Defamation: A Big Tale Of A Teacher & Two Rebellious High School Students…”

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

English teacher Elizabeth Ethredge, of the Waller Independent School District, filed a Texas defamation lawsuit against two of her students, Demi Alyssa Gray and Dylan Noble Wells. Ethredge insists Gray and Noble twisted tales about classroom events in retaliation for being disciplined. But Gray and Noble insist the teacher acted inappropriately in class.

The month was November; the year, 2012. According to Ethredge, she was giving her students a State-mandated lesson in oral storytelling. The seasoned teacher opted to regale her class with a tale about her son being robbed at another school in the district.

According to two of her students, Gray and Noble, five months after the lesson, Ethredge encouraged students to hone their spy skills, head over to Facebook, and avenge her son’s honor by trying to purchase goods from the person Ethredge believed robbed her [ son ].

The curious part about this case, though, is that the students waited months to “snitch” on their teacher. Why? Well, if you believe Ethredge’s side of the story, they only did it in retaliation for her sending them to the principal’s office over breaking school dress code rules and being disruptive in class.

Soon after the two students ratted on their teacher, the school district suspended Ethredge with pay. Soon after that, administrators seriously considered termination. As a result, she decided to file an Internet defamation case.

Filed at the Harris County Court, Ethredge is asking for punitive damages, citing defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Ethredge’s claim averred that the students’ actions were a “deliberate and malicious intent to injure plaintiff’s reputation.” To temper any speculation about the nature of what happened in her classroom, Ethredge’s suit explains that the “oral storytelling exercise was directly related to and in compliance with the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, the State Standards for curriculum in public schools in Texas.”

In order to win this case, Ethredge will most likely have to prove material harm – as you can’t win a defamation lawsuit over hurt feelings. It’s interesting to note that Texas does not have a false light tort – if it did, Ethredge may have been able to file a stronger case. That’s not to say she doesn’t have a chance at winning this one – especially since administrators are talking termination — but being able to add a false light charge would put more “meat” on the proverbial bone.

Kelly Warner Law is based in Arizona but also licensed in Texas.

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Connor Group Sues Former Tenant For Online Criticism

“Apartment-Complex Owner Sues Former Tenant Over Online Jabs”

By Dan Gearino, The Columbus Dispatch, March 14, 2014

A Columbus man faces a lawsuit with potential damages of more than $1 million because of comments he made online about his experience renting at a Northwest Side apartment complex.  James Raney, an information-technology developer who now lives in Harrison West, commented on several forums about his time at the Meridian off W. 5th Avenue. He used a comic tone to contrast the complex’s purported “luxury apartments” and his view of their reality.

The complex’s owner, the Connor Group of Dayton, responded to Raney’s comments with a defamation lawsuit filed in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court. It accuses Raney of making untrue statements with the intent to financially damage the company.

Other Connor critics say the suit is nothing more than an attempt to silence someone who is expressing opinions shared by large number of current or former tenants.  In the legal world, this is often called a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP, said Christopher M. Fairman, an associate dean at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. Some states have laws that limit such suits, but not Ohio. “This is a poster child for a SLAPP suit,” he said. “The purpose is to silence critics.” He said Connor Group might have been better off ignoring Raney. By suing, Fairman said, the company risks amplifying the criticism and doing additional damage to its reputation.

Connor Group takes a different view. Ryan Ernst, a Connor spokesman, had this statement: “We think it’s our responsibility to accept factual criticism and act on it. But when that criticism is untrue, malicious and defamatory, that crosses the line. In those cases, we’re always going to stand up for ourselves and our associates.”

The company owns or manages more than 14,000 apartments in five states, including nine complexes in central Ohio.

In the suit, Connor asks for damages of “in excess of $25,000” each for a series of about 30 statements by Raney.

The statements, which the company says are untrue and defamatory, include the following:

  • Connor is “gaming the system” by paying people to write positive reviews on apartment ratings websites.
  • The company does not spend enough money for needed repairs at its properties.
  • Connor “financially raped” residents with high fees.

The company has many online critics, including more than 500 people who are members of a Facebook group called Tenants Against Connor Group. The Better Business Bureau website shows an “A” rating for Connor Group, though it also lists 309 complaints in the past three years and “a pattern of complaints” about maintenance issues, utility billing and poor communication.

Several members of the Facebook critics group were contacted, and they agreed with Raney’s comments, but few agreed to be interviewed for fear of being sued. One who did agree to speak, Cincinnati accountant Chris Tope, called Connor “a very difficult company to deal with.” He moved out of his Connor-owned property last year.

Raney, who declined to comment for this story, posts some of his information using the pseudonym “John Yossarian,” the name of the main character in Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22.  He began posting two years ago about his experiences at the Meridian, which was about the time he left the complex. He has since started a blog, www.rentn.org, that comments about Connor Group as a whole and the company’s top executive, Larry Connor. On a recent post, he retouched a photo of Connor to make him look like the Emperor from the Star Wars movies.

The personal nature of the criticism probably contributed to the lawsuit, said Paul Levy, an attorney at Public Citizen. The national consumer-advocacy group has represented people in cases like this but is not involved in this one.  “It tends to be small to midsize companies” that sue for defamation, he said. “It tends not to be the General Motors of the world. It tends to be a company where there is an individual who built the company, and he doesn’t like it when the online world criticizes it.”

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HUD Inspection Records For Connor Group

MAY 18, 2014

“HUD Inspection Records Shed Light On lawsuit”

Dan Gearino, The Columbus Dispatch

A Dayton apartment company that sued a Columbus man for defamation was not approved for federal assistance at six Ohio properties in part because of a long list of maintenance concerns.

Government records, obtained by The Dispatch from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, provide an independent look at one of the contentions in a $1 million-plus lawsuit filed by the Connor Group against James Raney of Columbus. They describe conditions similar to some of the allegedly defamatory statements Raney made on his blog and other online forums.

In January 2011, HUD said this about a Connor property in Columbus:“Of primary concern with the property is the structural fractures and cracking to a number of the buildings’ walls, foundations and support beams; the condition of exterior stairwells; the questionable condition of the roof (evidence of past and possible leaks were noted throughout the property); the condition of windows, doors and door jambs; extensive sidewalk cracking; inadequate drainage; deteriorated landscaping; bowed stairwell floors; and numerous items of deferred maintenance,” read a letter from William E. Hughes, director of project management in HUD’s Columbus office.

He was writing about Lexington Park on the Northwest Side, a property that the company describes as “luxury apartments.” Inspectors also took dozens of photos showing the conditions.

Ryan Ernst, a Connor Group spokesman, said conditions at the complex are much better than what was shown in the HUD inspection.

At the same time, Raney said he is not surprised by the descriptions of the properties in the records. He joked that the logical next step is for Connor to sue HUD, saying in an e-mail that the company should “show the same courage and conviction in trying to silence these slanderous bureaucrats as they did with me.”

Housing advocates say this lawsuit, which The Dispatch first wrote about in March, is unlike anything they have ever seen in a landlord-tenant issue.

“This is just over the top,” said Bill Faith, executive director of the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness in Ohio. He was surprised by the lawsuit because “most landlords are pretty pragmatic” and would have concerns that a high-profile lawsuit would be bad for business.

Raney, an information-technology developer who now lives in Harrison West, was sued in response to his blog, http://www.rentn.org, and other online writing in which he described his experiences at a Connor property and posted photos and descriptions of other Connor properties submitted by readers.

Connor has argued that Raney made a series of statements with a “reckless disregard for whether or not they were true.”

The case is in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court in Dayton, which is where Connor is based. Raney’s attorney has filed a motion to dismiss and said the suit is the company’s attempt to silence a critic.

The government records begin in 2010, when Connor applied for mortgage insurance at nine properties in the state through the Federal Housing Administration. Three properties were approved, and six were not. The applications covered only about half of Connor’s properties in the state.

Lexington Park was Connor’s only central Ohio property inspected by HUD. The others were in the Dayton and Cincinnati areas. (Raney lived at a different Northwest Side complex, the Meridian, which was not inspected; he has written on his website about conditions at Lexington Park and several other properties that were inspected.)

Connor disagreed with assessments made by HUD inspectors, Ernst said in an email. “So did two different independent inspectors whose reports refute HUD’s characterization of Lexington Park,” Ernst wrote. “We take great pride in the improvements we make to our communities after acquisition. In the 76 months we’ve owned Lexington Park, we’ve completed $2.2 million in proactive capital improvements — well ahead of industry standard for a community that size.”

He provided two reports from non-government inspectors in which the property was described as being in good repair, one from before the HUD rejection and one from after. One of them, from Nova Consulting of Salt Lake City, said the buildings “appear to have been provided with adequate preventative maintenance” and listed $500 in critical repairs and $1,000 in noncritical repairs.This is in contrast to HUD’s report, which listed $52,846 in critical repairs and $524,964 in noncritical repairs at the complex.

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Connor Property Group Sues Former Resident

MARCH 20, 2014

“Former Resident Slapped with $1 Million Defamation Lawsuit by Property Management Firm”

Jon Lowder, Piedmont Triad Apartment Association

There’s a property management firm in Ohio that’s decided to get aggressive with a former resident who made negative comments online. Real aggressive.

A Central Ohio man is being sued for around $1,000,000, after posting comments online about living in an apartment complex. James Raney tells ABC 6/FOX 28 he was your average unhappy customer. He says some of his former apartment’s policies didn’t sit well with him. When he voiced his opinions online, he was slapped with a big lawsuit…

The suit accuses Raney of giving out false information and trying to hurt the company’s bottom dollar. The Connor Group gave ABC 6/FOX 28 a statement reading in part: “We think it’s our responsibility to accept factual criticism and act on it. But when that criticism is untrue, malicious and defamatory, that crosses the line. In those cases, we’re always going to stand up for ourselves.”

The lawsuit asks for $25,000 for each of the dozens of statements Raney posted. Statements he says were posted a couple years ago. His lawyer says the whole thing is just an attempt to put a cap on how much the public can criticize a company.

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From Now Until The End Of Time . . .

APRIL 4, 2014

“Insult And Injury: How Doctors Are Losing The War Against Trolls,”

Jake Rossen, BuzzFeed

“The Streisand Effect.” refers to the consequence of inviting even more negative attention by trying to remove negative attention. (The) inspiration was Barbra Streisand’s objecting to a photo of her house in California being made part of a series documenting coastal erosion. Her complaints made the image far more pervasive online than it would have been had she simply ignored it.

David McKee, M.D., a Duluth, Minn., neurologist, was unaware of this phenomenon at the time he decided to sue Dennis Laurion. Laurion’s father, Kenneth, had suffered a stroke in April 2010; McKee was called in to assess Kenneth’s condition.

Both McKee and Dennis Laurion agree on substance, if not necessarily intent: The doctor entered the room and expressed that he was initially puzzled the elder Laurion had been moved from intensive care. Usually, McKee said, there are only two ways out of the ICU, and he offered this was the better option. McKee intended for the comment to be lighthearted; the Laurions found it crass.

McKee asked if Kenneth felt like getting out of bed so he could make an assessment on mobility. He did, though his gown was partially undone in the back. According to the Laurions, McKee was oblivious to Kenneth’s modesty. “His son was right there,” McKee counters. “If he was concerned about the gown, he didn’t get out of his chair to tie it.”

The family exited the room while McKee conducted a brief examination. Laurion says he returned to find his father partially conscious. His head, Laurion asserts, was “pushed against the railing” of the hospital bed, appearing to be a victim of postural hypotension that resulted in a brief fainting spell.

Unaware of any resentment, McKee went to the nurse’s station to dictate notes; an irritated Dennis Laurion consulted with his family to see if his impression of the arrogant doctor was real or imagined. At no point did he approach McKee to clear the air. Instead, he fired off a dozen or more letters to a variety of medical institutions, including the hospital’s ombudsman, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, Medicare, and the American Medical Association.

“I just wanted someone with ‘M.D.’ after their name to say, ‘This doesn’t reflect well on you.’” Laurion says. “I wanted someone to say he should tone it down and be more personable.” The dozen letters, he says, were to account for any overlapping bureaucracy — though he admits even his own lawyer questioned the avalanche of paperwork.

For good measure, he also posted reviews on rating sites including Vitals.com and Insiderpages.com. In addition to critiquing his bedside manner, Laurion quoted a nurse he ran into who once knew McKee. The doctor, she allegedly said, was “a real tool.”

McKee sued Laurion for defamation. A local Duluth newspaper picked up on the story, favoring Laurion’s interpretation of events. McKee claims the writer called him shortly before close of business Friday to solicit a quote; the story ran the following day. “The article was written like I was being reviewed for misconduct,” McKee says. In fact, no action had been taken against him by any of the organizations Laurion had written to.

Two events further demoralized McKee. In April 2011, the judge granted Laurion’s motion for summary judgment, ruling his comments were protected free speech. Worse, a user on Reddit.com posted the newspaper story. Almost overnight, dozens of “reviews” popped up on RateMDs.com and other sites with outlandish commentary on McKee, who was referred to as “the dickface doctor of Duluth.” Their software was apparently unable to determine that a surge of opinion over a matter of hours was highly unusual activity for a physician who normally received perhaps three comments in a year.

“I got a cold call from an online reputation site,” he recalls. “They said, ‘Boy, you’re all over the internet. You want some help?’” One of the physician’s three daughters was handed a printout of an online post in school and ridiculed. She came home crying.  “The internet creates a scenario where people with most emotional energy behind their opinions will become the most visible,” he says. “But the 7,000 patients I’ve seen since practicing in Duluth that have little or no feelings are invisible.” Convinced Laurion was behind the multitude of postings (though they coincided with the Reddit discussion, a large number allegedly came from Duluth, where Laurion resided), McKee renewed his litigation and his lawyer hired a private investigator to find the nurse Laurion claimed to have run into. She was never located.

“When he sued me, he opened Pandora’s box,” says Laurion, who denies submitting any posts beyond the initial two. “Whether all of it was proportionate, I don’t know. My intent all along was simply to have someone he respected say to him, ‘When a patient complains, it behooves us to conduct ourselves more circumspectly.’ That was my goal.”

McKee found no easy way to exit the situation. “You get drawn in,” he says, suggesting his lawyer nudged him into further action. “It’s throwing good money after bad. … I wanted out almost as soon as I got in, and it was always, ‘Well, just one more step.’” McKee appealed, and the summary judgment was overturned. The case, and the measurable impact of being labeled a “real tool,” was now headed for the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Law professor Eric Goldman, who says he feels physicians are “thin-skinned” when it comes to patient complaints, is confident that litigation is never the answer. “I imagine many lawyers saying that’s not good idea,” he says. “Good lawyers, anyway. McKee made a bad call. There are no winners in defamation lawsuits, and you should advise clients of that.”

Nearly $70,000 in legal fees later, McKee would agree. He argued his case in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ultimately concluded Laurion’s comments were opinions. And because the court could not rule on the meaning of “tool,” it became impossible to determine whether that was libelous.

“Referring to someone as ‘a real tool’ falls into the category of pure opinion because the term ‘real tool’ cannot be reasonably interpreted as stating a fact and it cannot be proven true or false,” read the ruling, which was excruciating in its examination of a schoolyard insult and found in favor of Laurion.

McKee was rated for several years as a top provider in Duluth Superior Magazine, a well-regarded lifestyle publication that recently folded. But his online reputation will outlive that. “From now until the end of time, I’ll be the jerk neurologist who was rude to a World War II veteran,” the physician says. “I’m stuck with it forever.”

The Above Was An Extract – See Full Article


Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Web Posting

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply To Patient Complaint

Plaintiff David McKee’s Cease And Desist Letter To Defendant Dennis Laurion

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Complaint To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint To Sixth Judicial District Duluth Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Response To Minnesota Board Of Medical Practice

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Answer To Plaintiff David McKee’s Complaint

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Motion For Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Deposition Extracts

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances Before Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony About Circumstances After Encounter With Laurion Family

Plaintiff David McKee’s Deposition Testimony In Response To Questions By Marshall Tanick

Affidavits By Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Parents

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Supplemental Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Motion To Oppose Summary Judgment

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Memo In Support Of Motion For Summary Judgment

Sixth Judicial District Court’s Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Appeal Of Order On Motion For Summary Judgment

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Court Of Appeals

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Order To Strike Portion Of Plaintiff David McKee’s Reply Brief

Minnesota Court Of Appeals Announces Decision

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Petition For Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Opposition To Review By Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Plaintiff David McKee’s Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Defendant Dennis Laurion’s Reply Brief To Minnesota Supreme Court

Minnesota Supreme Court Decision On David McKee MD V. Dennis K. Laurion

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2010

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2011

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2012

David McKee MD v. Dennis Laurion 2013

McKee V Laurion Is A Textbook Case

Dr. Jean Loftus’ Defamation Case Dismissed

MAY 23, 2014

“Plastic surgeon’s defamation case thrown out”

Lisa Hutson, FOX19, Covington, Kentucky

Catherine Nazari of Greendale, Ind. said she posted negative reviews of her plastic surgeon online after she suffered horrible scars and disfigurement from her procedures. That surgeon — Dr. Jean Loftus of Fort Wright — took her to court for those comments but the outcome was something neither one of them expected. “I had breast implants, breast lift, arm lift and a tummy tuck all in the same day,” said Nazari, 54.

Nazari said she underwent plastic surgery in 2006 to remedy loose skin caused by losing weight but what she woke up to was not what she expected. “My hands were numb. I had no feeling in my arms or my hands and she said it was due to the surgery, that it would come back in time but it never did,” she said. Unsightly scars and permanent nerve damage Nazari says are the results of that surgery. Soon after, she took to the Internet to warn others about her plastic surgeon. “I just wanted people to know. Be diligent. Do your research,” she said.

But Loftus has a different view. “I can’t stand by and let someone say absolutely false, disparaging, untrue statements, blatant defamatory accusations about me,” Loftus said. Loftus said the comments Nazari posted online about her practice were not negative reviews. They were lies. She said Nazari had a previous nerve condition that is causing her medical problems. Her incisions were not even deep enough to reach her nerves according to Loftus. That is when she decided to sue Nazari for defamation. “I did not file this suit to make money or to win an award. I filed this suit to bring out the truth,” Loftus said.

But a U.S. District Court judge in Covington did not agree and dismissed the doctor’s defamation claim and Nazari’s counterclaims citing under the 1st Amendment, Nazari had a right to her opinion.

Local defamation attorney Rob Linneman isn’t surprised. “This outcome is the outcome most constitutional scholars would have predicted. The consideration that is given to most 1st Amendment cases is what effect will it have on other people who would make comments if we punish this person for making this comment,” Linneman said.

Loftus disagrees. “It gives everybody the lead way to say whatever they want about anything they want and essentially hide behind the 1st Amendment,” Loftus said, noting she is most concerned about the precedent her case has set.

Though she is still unhappy with her procedures, Nazari is glad the legal fight is over. “My whole life has been disrupted because of all of this,” she said.

Nazari filed a medical malpractice suit against  Loftus but the case was thrown out. No medical expert could support her claims that the problems she is experiencing are a result of plastic surgery.

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High School English Teacher Elizabeth Ethredge Has Filed Suit Against Two Students

MAY 13, 2013

“Texas Teacher Sues Two Students For Defamation”

Kristen Butler, UPI

May 13 (UPI) — High school English teacher Elizabeth Ethredge has filed suit against two students claiming she was suspended and may be fired because they told the principal that she had asked her class to stalk a suspected thief on Facebook. Ethredge claims she was giving an “oral storytelling” lesson in November 2012 when she told her class an anecdote about her son having personal property stolen at a high school in another district, reports Courthouse News Service.

The complaint states that Ethredge “mentioned to her students that they might be able to help recover her son’s property.” She invited any student with a Facebook account to help by messaging the suspected thief to try and purchase the stolen item from him.

Ethredge claims the two students only brought it up months later, in March of this year, when she sent them to the principal’s office for disruptive behavior and a dress code violation.

“Defendants wrote statements about the oral storytelling exercise that were clearly retaliatory in nature, designed to take the focus off of their inappropriate behavior and to instead focus the principal’s attention on plaintiff,” the complaint states.

As further evidence of the students’ alleged “deliberate and malicious intent to injure plaintiff’s reputation,” the complaint shows that one student posted a message to Facebook during school hours that said, “Hey Ethredge, “I threw stones at your house” what you got for me big bada**? Case closed!”

The second student named in the suit commented on the post, saying “Hahahahah [expletive] ain’t got [expletive]!”

Days after the cited Facebook posts, the Board of Trustees of the Waller Independent School District proposed termination of Ethredge’s employment.

Ethredge seeks punitive damages for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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