First Circuit: Attorneys Who Send Letters With A Lot Of "Bull" Are Liable For Defamation
A Louisiana First Circuit decision released today should serve as a warning for attorneys who are wont to send over-the-top demand letters to their clients’ litigation foes.
The case involved the junior livestock show at the 2005 Louisiana State Fair. Bryan Gallery’s son’s steer was named Reserve Champion (second place). Unfortunately, he was disqualified from the competition and prohibited from selling his steer because he violated a new fair rule by leaving the fairgrounds early. Gallery was understandably disappointed.
Almost immediately, Gallery began sending letters to fair organizers, state agriculture agents, the governor, state representatives and other elected officials. Many of the letters were sent by his attorney, Maurice Tynes, on his behalf. In addition to expressing his disappointment in his son’s disqualification, Gallery and Tynes also accused Dennis Glass, the grandfather child who showed the Grand Champion (first place) steer, of various improprieties such as fraud and theft. If that weren’t enough, Gallery and Tynes also claimed Glass violated federal and state criminal laws by procuring an illegal steer for show in the fair.
Glass filed a defamation lawsuit in St. Tammany Parish. When Gallery could not prove any of his claims at trial, the judge ruled that the letters were defamatory per se, and ordered Gallery and Tynes to pay Glass the sum total of $70,000 in damages. The court determined that both Gallery and Tynes had made the defamatory statements, based in large part upon the language that appeared throughout the letters – specifically the references to “we” and “my client and I.”
This case contains lessons for both litigants and their attorneys. Litigants should take an active role in reviewing their attorneys’ correspondence with their opponents and their representatives. If the language drifts from theatrical to defamatory, it’s possible that a court may later decide the client was at fault as well, particularly if the information used was provided by the client.
Attorneys should advise emotional clients that aggressively worded correspondence with exaggerated allegations may have unintended consequences. The same goes for clients who insist demand letters be sent to people not directly involved in the dispute, such as the recipient’s employer, landlord, or the governor. Ultimately, the attorney who acquiesces to a client’s demands for blood may later find themselves personally liable for defamation.
The case is captioned Dennis Glass v. Bryan Gallery and Maruice Tynes, 2012-0767 (La. App. 1 Cir. 2/6/2013) (not designated for publication).