New Jersey Caselaw: In Suarez v. NJ.com, an unpublished opinion, the New Jersey Appellate Division recently found that a defamation plaintiff must prove damages even when he already proved that the comments were made with actual malice. The Court noted that there are times when a litigant does not need to prove damages in a defamation case but this case did not fall within that exception.

In the Suarez case, a statement alleged that the Ridgefield, New Jersey Mayor, a councilman and several police officers went to the author’s home at six o’clock in the morning, investigating an erroneous anonymous tip that he had an illegal apartment. The posting of this statement spurred numerous additional bloggers, many of whom expressed sympathetic comments. The Mayor of the town sued the anonymous writer for defamation, denying that he was ever involved in any such home inspection and alleging that his reputation had been harmed as a result of the statement. The writer admitted under oath that the statement was not true, confessing that the incident did not occur at his home but that it was merely a story he heard from his attorney and friend who was the prosecutor in the town.

Even though the writer made false statements, the Court did not permit the Mayor to proceed with his defamation case. As a public figure, the Mayor had a greater burden of proof. Essentially, he needed to prove that (a) the writer acted with actual malice in making the statements against the Mayor; and (b) he suffered actual damages as a result of the publication of those statements.

The law provides for added flexibility with regard to speech made about public officials. The First Amendment encourages speech by public officials and therefore requires actual malice by the speaker in order for a public figure to proceed with a defamation claim. Actual malice generally means making a statement with actual knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was false. Thus, since the statements in this case were “of public concern,” the Court examined those statements more closely.

Nonetheless, the court noted that even if the court found that defendant acted with actual malice in making the statements, the plaintiff would still be required to prove that his reputation was actually damaged as a result. In the end, the court rejected the Mayor’s claims because he failed to provide sufficient information or other evidence as to how his reputation was actually damaged.

This case highlights the difficulty for a public official to win a defamation case with added scrutiny and additional elements that a public official must prove. Any person who believes that a defamatory statement has been made about them should seek the advice of counsel in order to determine whether the claim will be subject to such heightened scrutiny.

Comments/Questions: ljm@gdnlaw.com

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