Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Bouie and Jones v. Rugged Wearhouse, Inc. (Maryland U.S.D.C.)

Memorandum and Order Issued February 5, 2007–Opinion by Judge Andre M. Davis

Bouie and Jones filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1981 racial discrimination and common law defamation claim from an accusation of attempted shoplifting while shopping in Rugged Wearhouse. Dismissal of the racial discrimination claim by the Circuit Court for Baltimore City left pending defendant's motion for summary judgment on the issue of damages for the state law claim. Without hearing, their motion was granted in part and denied in part.

The case deals with allegedly defamatory speech involving two private parties in a matter of a private concern. The plaintiffs claim that, after being followed by store employees, they attempted to leave without making a purchase at which time the store manager spoke harshly to Bouie, essentially accusing Bouie and Jones of stealing or attempting to steal items and threatening to call police if they returned.

In Maryland, the elements of defamation with regard to private figures are:

(1) that the defendant made a defamatory communication, i.e., that he communicated a statement tending to expose the plaintiff to public scorn, hatred, contempt, or ridicule to a third person who reasonably recognized the statement as being defamatory; (2) that the statement was false; (3) that the defendant was at fault in communicating the statement; and (4) that the plaintiff suffered harm.

Defendant conceded that plaintiffs generated genuine disputes of fact on the issue of liability but contended plaintiffs’ damages must be limited. The court agreed in part based on Maryland’s distinction between defamation per se and defamation per quod. Viewing the facts most favorably to the plaintiffs, the manager’s speech constituted defamatory communication and injury is presumed. However, the record was wholly bereft of any evidence that plaintiffs suffered actual harm. "Harm" is not limited to monetary loss; in fact, the more customary types of actual harm inflicted by defamatory falsehood include impairment of reputation and standing in the community, personal humiliation and mental anguish and suffering. Plaintiffs’ deposition testimony showed conclusively that neither suffered actual damages, either personal or business, from the store manager’s defamatory statements. Plaintiffs did not allege mental anguish as an element of damages, and there was nothing in the record to support an award of damages for any such harm.

As a matter of law, plaintiffs failed to generate a genuine dispute of material fact as to the existence of actual damages flowing from the defamatory statements made by the store manager. Therefore, as a matter of law, defendant is entitled to determination that any damages award shall be limited to "presumed damages" from the defamatory per se statements that plaintiffs were shoplifters. The issue of "actual malice," i.e., wether the store manager knew his allegations were false, thereby permitting an award of punitive damages, is for the jury. In a defamation action, punitive damages are not recoverable based on ill will, spite or an intent to injure; instead, to recover punitive damages, the plaintiff must establish that the defamatory falsehood was made with actual knowledge that it was false.

The full memorandum is available in PDF.

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