First Circuit Declines to Reconsider Its Holding That Truth May Not Be a Defense Under 1902 Massachusetts Law

by Lee Gesmer on March 20, 2009

First Circuit Declines to Reconsider Its Holding That Truth May Not Be a Defense Under 1902 Massachusetts Law

The First Circuit has denied Staples’ request that it hear the Noonan v. Staples case en banc, or that it ask the SJC to advise it on how to apply the 100 year old Massachusetts statute which provides that “actual malice” may create an exception to the principle that defamation must be false to be actionable.

I posted on this case a few weeks ago (link here), and commented on the agita it had created in the First Amendment milieu. In fact, a vast number of publishers and First Amendment advocates filed an amicus en banc brief urging the First Circuit to reconsider this decision

Today, the Court denied this request and let its February 13, 2009 decision stand. In an order several pages long, the Court found that Staples had waived any First Amendment challenge to the state law by failing to raise it earlier, and that Staples could not, moreover, cite a case supporting the proposition that the law was unconstitutional. Here are some selective quotes from the Order:

Since its initial brief, Staples has argued under the premise that the term “actual malice” in § 92 means “malevolent intent.” Yet, Staples did not then challenge the constitutionality of such a construction. Thus, the . . . opinion found that it need not consider the issue. . . .

The issue is waived, and the fact that the issue raises constitutional concerns does not save the waiver. . . .

Further, Staples has not shown that the constitutional issue is so clear that the panel should have acted sua sponte to strike down a state statute, without the required notice to the state attorney general. Staples still does not cite a case for the proposition that the First Amendment does not permit liability for true statements concerning matters of private concern.

Nor it is appropriate to now certify the question to the SJC. We have answered the question of state law regarding the proper interpretation of the statute, and Staples has not challenged that matter on rehearing. The question of the constitutionality of that state law under the First Amendment is a federal question, which we could answer without certification.

Staples’ petition for rehearing is here.

It is worth pointing out, as a complement to the Staples case, a recent decision by Massachusetts Superior Court Justice James Lemire, issued on January 14, 2009 in Oropallo v. Brenner. The issue in that case was not defamation, but rather the right to privacy under Massachusetts law.  Without going into the facts of the case (which are confidential in nature), the court acknowledged an employee’s “expectation that [certain] details [of her life would] be kept private.”  The court stated that there exists a genuine issue of material fact as to whether [the Town] had a legitimate interest in publishing  [a document that disclosed this information] to Town employees and volunteers that outweighed [the employee’s] interest in keeping aspects of her personal life from public view.”

Accordingly, the Court held, the case should proceed to trial.

In light of these two recent cases it probably goes with out saying, but of course I’ll say it anyways: employers should proceed with extreme caution with respect to statements they make about employees, lest they risk claims of defamation and/or invasion of privacy. Praemonitus, praemunitus.

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