Defamation Pleading Requirements Remain Uncertain in Massachusetts
The U.S. Supreme Court has never determined the appropriate pleading requirement for defamation claims. In some states and in some federal courts, heightened pleading requirements for defamation claims have evolved due to the First Amendment implications inherent in defamation suits and the disfavored status of defamation claims generally. For example, New York’s court rules require that defamation plaintiffs set forth “the particular words complained of … [although] their application to the plaintiff may be stated generally.”
Massachusetts’ highest court came close to adopting such a rule in 1990 in Eyal v. Helen Broadcasting Corporation. There, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court considered a defamation claim by an individual against a radio station arising out of the station’s broadcast that “the owner of a Brookline delicatessen” has been arrested “in connection with an international cocaine ring.” The plaintiff was not specifically identified, but the court permitted the case to proceed because specific facts were pleaded to satisfy the “of and concerning” requirement. In reaching this holding, the court deferred adopting a strict standard for defamation pleading because it was satisfied that “the allegedly defamatory statement [was] set out verbatim and extrinsic facts [were] stated with particularity.”
Now, two recent Massachusetts Superior Court cases taking different positions suggest that the issue may soon be addressed again by the Supreme Judicial Court. In the first case, Endodontic Assoc. of Lexington, Inc. v. Johnston-Neeser, the court considered an employee’s counterclaim containing a hodgepodge of business-related counts, including one for defamation, against a former employer. All that was pleaded in the defamation count was that “the plaintiff had made false statements to others that damaged the counterclaim plaintiff.” There was no specificity as to the contents of the statements or the identity of the individuals who allegedly heard them. For this reason, the trial judge dismissed the claim in light of what she interpreted as the heightened pleading requirement required by the Eyal decision.
Within three months, another trial judge reached a different conclusion. In Moriarty v. Sullivan, the court considered a defamation claim by a former employee of the City of Holyoke against an entity, MHC, which investigated alleged wrongdoing in Holyoke city government. As in the Endodontic Associates case, the Moriarty court reviewed a defamation claim against MHC that was phrased in conclusions without reference to specific words. Typical of the allegations was that MHC had said that “the plaintiff improperly misappropriated funds.”
The Moriarty court did not require a heightened standard of defamation pleading. Viewing Eyal’s language about heightened defamation as less than a mandate to lower courts, the Moriarty court applied the traditional “notice pleading” standard to the claim, denying dismissal since it “did not appear beyond doubt that Moriarty can prove no set of facts in support of his defamation claim which would entitle him to relief.”
While Endodontic Associates appears to be a more accurate interpretation of Eyal, the defamation pleading standard in Massachusetts will remain unsettled until the appellate courts deal with it directly.