Friday, October 12, 2012

Anti-SLAPP motion wins: Court of Appeal Says Online Comments by Mother, Grandmother of Plaintiff’s Child Were Opinions

Update Dec. 2013: Darren Chaker Sentenced to Federal Prison for Bankruptcy Fraud

See my earlier post about Darren Chaker.

See Court of Appeal decision in Chaker v. Mateo.

Panel Says Online Comments by Mother, Grandmother of Plaintiff’s Child Were Opinions
Defamation Suit Over ‘Deadbeat Dad’ Reference Held SLAPP
Metropolitan News-Enterprise
October 5, 2012

Two women who referred to a San Diego man, in an online posting, as a “criminal and a deadbeat dad” who “may be taking steroids” were expressing protected opinions and cannot be liable for defamation, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday. Div. One affirmed a San Diego Superior Court judge’s ruling that the suit by Darren D. Chaker against Wendy and Nicole Mateo was a strategic lawsuit against public participation. The justices agreed with Judge Timothy Taylor that the suit arose from speech on a public issue, and that the action is barred by the First Amendment.

The evidence, Justice Patricia Benke explained, showed that Nicole Mateo became pregnant during a brief relationship with Chaker, resulting in contentious paternity and child support litigation in Mateo’s home state of Texas. In 2010, comments about Chaker and his forensics business, including claims that he was involved in fraud and prostitution, as well as the deadbeat dad and steroid references, began showing up in the comments sections of websites such as Topix, where he had posted a profile, and the Ripoff Report.

Anti-SLAPP Motion

Chaker attributed some of those statements to Nicole Mateo and her mother Wendy Mateo, and sued both of them, as well as others. Wendy Mateo brought an anti-SLAPP motion, which the judge granted.

Benke, like the trial judge, rejected Chaker’s argument that the allegedly defamatory statements related to a purely private dispute, thus falling outside the scope of the statute. The justice cited Wilbanks v. Wolk (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 883, which held that the Internet is a public forum, as well as cases holding that public statements about private conduct—such as criticism of the treatment of young athletes by their coaches— may be matters of public interest for purposes of Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.16.

“Like the court in Wilbanks, we view the Internet as an electronic bulletin board open to literally billions of people all over the world,” the jurist wrote. “...The Internet is a classic public forum which permits an exchange of views in public about everything from the great issues of war, peace, and economic development to the relative quality of the chicken pot pies served at competing family restaurants in a single small neighborhood.”

She went on to say:

“The statements posted to the ‘Ripoff Report’ Web site about Chaker’s character and business practices plainly fall within in the rubric of consumer information about Chaker’s ‘Counterforensics’ business and were intended to serve as a warning to consumers about his trustworthiness.”

By posting his profile on Topix, she added, Chaker “made his character a matter of public interest as the term has been interpreted.”

Because the comments deal with a matter of public interest, Benke wrote, the burden shifted to Chaker to show that he was likely to prevail. But because the First Amendment protects opinion, she said, he could not make such a showing.

Opinion, Not Fact

Citing a number of recent cases holding similar online comments to be opinion, rather than assertions of fact, the justice said the statements challenged by Chaker had to be understood in the context of the litigation between him and Nicole Mateo, particularly since they “were made on Internet Web sites which plainly invited the sort of exaggerated and insulting criticisms of businesses and individuals which occurred here.”

Attacking Chaker as “dishonest and scary,” the justice said, “is on its face nothing more than a negative, but nonactionable opinion.

A different result might have been reached, Benke suggested, if, instead of mere generalized attacks on the plaintiff’s character, the defendants made allegations of specific wrongdoing at specified times and places.

The reference to Chaker as a “criminal,” the justice added, was arguably defamatory, but is nonactionable because Chaker was convicted of a crime, although the conviction was expunged.

The case is Chaker v. Mateo, D058753

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here's an FBI update on Darren Chaker: Man Sentenced to Federal Prison for Bankruptcy Fraud
U.S. Attorney’s Office
December 17, 2013

Southern District of Texas
(713) 567-9000
HOUSTON—Darren David Chaker, 41, of Beverly Hills, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada, has been ordered to federal prison following his conviction of bankruptcy fraud, announced United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson. Chaker was found guilty April 4, 2013, following a five-day bench trial before U.S. District Judge Nancy Atlas.

Today, Judge Atlas sentenced Chaker to a term of 15 months in prison, to be immediately followed by a three-year-term of supervised release. He was further ordered to pay a $2,000 fine. As part of the sentencing, Judge Atlas included special conditions that he not stalk or harass anyone and obtain mental health counseling and anger management. In handing down the sentence, Judge Atlas noted that the bankruptcy system depends on the reliability of those who petition for bankruptcy relief and added that the case involved a defendant who could not tell the truth to the court. She rejected Chaker’s request for a sentence of probation, calling this a significant crime and finding that a sentence of custody is critical.

The evidence at trial showed that Chaker filed bankruptcy under Chapter 13, in which a debtor is required to propose a plan of reorganization to pay the debtor’s creditors over time. The debtor is required to pay at least as much as the creditors would receive if the debtor’s assets were liquidated on the date of the filing of the bankruptcy petition. The process is designed to achieve an orderly transfer of a debtor’s assets to creditors from available assets truthfully and accurately disclosed and to provide a “fresh start” to honest debtors by allowing them to obtain a discharge or release of debt incurred prior to filing bankruptcy.

According to the evidence, Chaker filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 13 on March 6, 2007. Specifically, on or about March 26, 2007, during a bankruptcy hearing before the Honorable Jeffrey Bohm, while under oath, Chaker falsely and fraudulently represented to the court that the property was never leased out prior to January 2007, when he had in fact previously contracted with a realtor who secured at least two rental contracts with Chaker personally. Chaker failed to disclose income and the existence of past and present residential leases of a residential property facing foreclosure in Houston to his creditor, Saxon Mortgage in the hearing and to the court.

In order for the bankruptcy system to work for all parties, it is imperative for the debtor to be truthful and forthright in all aspects of the bankruptcy process. The bankruptcy system is based on an honor system—the debtor agrees to provide all the necessary information requested by the trustee and to assist the trustee in collecting all assets of debtors and comply with the court’s orders to obtain the relief desired under the chapter the case was filed.

Chaker will remain in custody pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.

This case was investigated by the FBI, with assistance from the United States Trustee’s Office and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Carolyn Ferko and Sharad Khandelwal.