Litigation Privilege Protects NJ Law Firm from Defamation Claim
Not all personal injury cases involve physical or psychological damages. There are also tort claims involving alleged injuries to a person's reputation or character, such as defamation, libel, and slander. But proving such injuries requires more than showing a defendant made a false statement that impugned the plaintiff's reputation. Indeed, even in the case of allegedly false statements, a defendant may cite one or more legal privileges to escape potential civil liability.
Paralegal with Criminal Record Objected to Being Described as “Pathological Liar”
In a recent unpublished decision, Alevras v. Barletti, the Appellate Division addressed one of these privileges. This is a defamation case that arose from a prior lawsuit. The plaintiff worked as a contract paralegal for an attorney representing one of the parties in the first lawsuit. The defendants are a law firm and one of its attorneys, who represented the other side in the litigation.
During the course of the first lawsuit, the defendants filed a response to a motion ostensibly filed by opposing counsel. Aside from the merits of the motion itself, the defendants also advised the court that “it is apparent … that it is plaintiff's paralegal, [the plaintiff], who is a convicted felon and a pathological liar, that is filing these motions.”
In response, the plaintiff filed his defamation lawsuit, specifically alleging that the defense's description of him as a “pathological liar” was false. The plaintiff further rejected the defendants' implication that he “was committing numerous criminal offenses during and in relation to the civil case including but not limited to engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.”
Notably, the plaintiff did not deny the charge that he was a convicted felon. In fact, according to the New York Times, the plaintiff pleaded guilty in October 1997 to “a series of fraud charges” and was sentenced to more than seven years in federal prison. According to federal prosecutors in that case, the plaintiff posed as his then-boss, a lawyer who suffered a “debilitating stroke,” and proceeded to illegally practice law and embezzle client funds.
That background aside, in the instant defamation case both the trial court and the Appellate Division concluded that any statements made by the defendants in the course of representing their client were protected by “litigation privilege.” As the Appellate Division explained, this is a longstanding common-law privilege that protects any statements made “in a judicial proceeding, by a person authorized to make those statements, to achieve the objectives of the litigation, and had some connection or logical relation to the underlying action.”
Litigation Privilege Does Not Protect Against Professional Misconduct, Perjury Charges
It should be noted that the litigation privilege only extends to civil claims for libel and defamation. As the New Jersey Supreme Court discussed in Hawkins v. Harris, 661 A.2d 284, the privilege does not protect attorneys from professional discipline for “unethical conduct,” which could include making false statements about opposing counsel. Nor does it protect someone who offers false testimony under oath from a criminal perjury prosecution.
If you have any additional questions or concerns about the litigation privilege or New Jersey libel and defamation law in general, contact Joseph Leone at email@example.com or call 732-545-4717 today.