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Eleventh Circuit Reinstates Haitian Businessman’s Defamation Claims

Facebook Comments Not Pure Opinion

By Sarah Brewerton-Palmer

The Eleventh Circuit reinstated a Haitian businessman's defamation case, holding that defendant's Facebook post accusing plaintiff of illegal conduct could be actionable. Deeb v. Saati, No. 18-12577, 2019 WL 2537730 (11th Cir. June 20, 2019) (Rosenbaum, Branch, Fay JJ.) (unpublished). The court noted that while the bulk of defendant's post was opinion – e.g., "stream-of-consciousness sermonizing about values, character, and reputation" – statements accusing plaintiff of money laundering and other misconduct could imply false facts.

Background

In 2017, prominent Haitian businessman Reynold Deeb sued Georges Saati for two counts of defamation per se under Florida law. Saati owned and operated a website called Moun.com, which he described as the "WikiLeaks of the Caribbean." The first count of defamation was based on an article Saati published on Moun.com in 2015. The headline of the article was originally written in French and translated to "Deeb brothers arrested, other [sic] waiting their turn."

The article—written by someone other than Saati and originally published in the local newspaper the Haiti Observateur—accused Deeb of being "'implicated in a series of illicit activities,' including undisclosed money transfers, arms trafficking in exchange for cocaine, falsified travel documents, and embezzlement."

Two years after its publication, Deeb demanded that Saati remove the article from Moun.com and post a retraction and apology. Deeb threatened a defamation suit if Saati did not comply. Saati's actions in response to the demand letter form the basis for Deeb's second count of defamation. The day after receiving the letter, Saati posted on Facebook that "Moun has just received a new letter of intimidation and threats of lawyers of the 'big' Entrepreneur, 'big' Financier, the famous 'Nonol' either Mr. Reynold Deeb,"

Saati then proclaimed that 'the so-called Barons of the bleaching of the city, better known as owner of 'dry cleaning' will be handcuffed and en route to the American prisons." The next day, Saati stated in a comment on his original post that "[o]nly in a poor nation like Haiti, Can 'The Truth' Disrupt alleged money launderers" and "[t]he same gangsters, white collar criminals can hire a lawyer to go after you, to intimidate you, to threaten you."

Deeb filed his defamation claims shortly after these Facebook postings. On a motion for summary judgment, the district court concluded that Saati's statements did not support a defamation claim because they were either pure opinion or hyperbole. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed.

Eleventh Circuit Decision

The Court began its analysis with a general discussion of defamation law. In Florida, a claim for defamation requires proof of five elements: "(1) publication; (2) of a false statement of fact about the plaintiff; (3) that is defamatory; (4) "with knowledge or reckless disregard as to the falsity on a matter concerning a public official, or at least negligently on a matter concerning a private person"; and (5) that results in actual damages." Id. at *3 (citing Turner v. Wells, 879 F.3d 1254, 1262 (11th Cir. 2018). In the Court's view, "[t]he primary dispute in this case [was] whether Saati's statements can reasonably be construed as actionable false statements of fact about Deeb." Id.

With regard to the Facebook posts, the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the district court that most of Saati's statements were "the sort of 'loose, figurative, or hyperbolic language' that no reasonable reader would believe presented facts." Id. at *4 (quoting Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 21 (1990)). However, Saati's posts also contained some statements that were more factual in nature, such as statements that Deeb was an "alleged money launderer" and a "Baron[] of the bleaching city" that would soon be "handcuffed and en route to the American prisons." Id. at *5.

Even the rambling and impassioned nature of the posts could not negate, as a matter of law, the impression that "Deeb had committed or been accused of the crime of money laundering." Id. The Court rejected Saati's argument that his statements were not defamatory because he did not explicitly call Deeb a money launderer. The Court held that the context of the posts permitted the conclusion that Saati's money launderer comment referred to Deeb.

The Court also held that Saati's statements were not pure opinion. Instead, a reasonable factfinder could determine that the statements were mixed expressions of fact and opinion. Id. Perhaps most notably, the Eleventh Circuit rejected Saati's argument that the facts underlying his opinion were known to his audience. Saati primarily relied on Hay v. Independent Newspapers, Inc., 450 So. 2d 293 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1984), which concerned a letter to the editor of a local newspaper calling the plaintiff a crook and a criminal.

The Court distinguished Hay on the ground that Saati's posts were made not in a local newspaper, but on an open Facebook page accessible to all Facebook users. In the context of such a widely accessible platform, yielding a "numerous and diverse" audience, the Court "[could not] say that the factual foundation of Saati's comments were either known to or assumed to exist by Saati's Facebook audience." Id. at *6.

The analysis in Deeb regarding the nature of a Facebook audience could be used to bolster future defamation claims, particularly in a world where such claims frequently concern statements published online and in social media. With regard to allegedly defamatory statements published on open pages, it may become increasingly difficult to assume that an audience will be familiar with the factual basis for a mixed expression of opinion and fact.

Sarah Brewerton-Palmer is an associate at Caplan Cobb in Atlanta. Plaintiff is represented by Gary S. Betensky and Adam M. Myron, Day Pitney LLP, West Palm Beach, FL. Defendant is represented by Jason Bloch and Thomas Ronzetti.

 
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