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A recent comment at SE Meta stated:

my reading of US law is that under certain circumstances, the plaintiff need make very little effort to successfully bring a suit of defamation.

This strikes me as absurd, because even if the plaintiff has a strong case, there is still a lot of work to be done in bringing any sort of suit.

What do the legal experts think? Does the quoted comment hold water?

(In case this is helpful: here is a succinct outline of the context that led to this question: https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/334399/summing-up-the-main-issues-the-story-so-far)

  • If it's a small claims case, not much work needs to be done. – Ron Beyer Oct 16 '19 at 3:44
  • @RonBeyer - And the limit to the possible monetary award in small claims court is $500? Another question: Arbitration through JAMS allows for both parties to use formal mediation (arranged by JAMS) to see if the dispute can be resolved that way, prior to an arbitration hearing being held. What about small claims court? Is mediation (with a trained mediator) possible with that route? Thank you. – aparente001 Oct 16 '19 at 3:47
  • Depends on the state, I think some allow awards up to $15,000, but most I think cap at $5000, not $500. I'd ask that other question as part of your original post, or a new question. – Ron Beyer Oct 16 '19 at 3:51
  • @RonBeyer - Ah, I was off by a factor of 10. Thanks. // I wonder why the small claims case needs much less work -- or maybe I should ask it like this: why the court case needs much more work. Maybe I should edit the question? I'm just trying to understand your first comment -- which it would be helpful to see in an answer, by the way. – aparente001 Oct 16 '19 at 3:58
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Is it true that a suit of defamation could require “very little effort”?

No. Definitely not. The Wikipedia article (and understandably the comment on which it is premised) leaves out many details about substantive and procedural law which are essential in US jurisdictions.

For instance, the [Wikipedia] item of "1. accusing someone of a crime" is insufficient for the falsehoods to be considered defamation per se. The crime of which one is falsely accused needs to be considered an infamous crime or involve moral turpitude. Under [US] defamation law, a crime is deemed serious or infamous when it is classified as felony or its punishment could exceed one year of prison. The case law cited in Lakin v. Rund, 896 N.W.2d 76 (2016) reflects how this criterion is uniform among US jurisdictions.

Another difficult issue in defamation lawsuits is the need to prove the defendant's mental state known as actual malice. Even where there is clear proof of a defamer's actual malice, a plaintiff can be denied justice because of judge's arbitrary choice to side with the defendant (just like with non-defamation lawsuits). For case law from various jurisdictions regarding defamation law and actual malice, you might want to see the citations in my briefs in the SCOTUS here and here. Most of the records in regard to the latter case are available here.

Defamation lawsuits are not exempt of having to comply with the procedural laws involved in judicial proceedings either, nor is the discovery, drafting, or legal research any simpler for being a lawsuit about defamation.

In the context of the comments that prompted your question here, the "repeated violations" that SE imputed to former moderator Monica would hardly be grounds for a viable lawsuit against SE for defamation per se or otherwise. Here are some reasons:

  • Rejecting a policy of gender pronouns such as the one SE seeks to impose is not considered an infamous crime. There is no legislation to that effect, at least yet.
  • An actual refusal to adhere to that policy hardly involves moral turpitude. Far from involving corruption (i.e., moral turpitude), the controversy about gender pronouns touches on some of a person's deepest beliefs. Thus, the "offense" of opposing such a policy cannot be said to constitute an act of moral turpitude.
  • The previous two items rule out a viable claim of defamation per se. Thus, Monica would have to prove that SE's falsehoods about her (whatever they are) caused her concrete losses (a typical example is lost income) by prompting others to dissociate from her. I am unaware of whether Monica's situation would fit in this scenario.
  • You are right in that a claim of mental distress is not viable either. Note from here or here that in a claim of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED)

(1) the conduct must be intentional and reckless; (2) the conduct must be extreme and outrageous; (3) there must be a causal connection between the wrongful conduct and the emotional distress; and (4) the emotional distress must be severe

  • Any claims of harassment that might be available to Monica would not be against SE, but against the specific individuals who engaged in harassing her directly.

Depending on the methods and severity of the harassment, Monica might be able to obtain injunctive relief --typically in the form of restraining orders-- against those specific individuals. It is noteworthy that not all criticism or heckling at or about Monica would be cognizable as harassment.

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    It is probably worth pointing out that (so far as I know) there has been no suggestion that the individual concerned has any intention to file suite against SE. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 16 '19 at 10:32
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    @MartinBonner - Correct. I appreciate your pointing that out. – aparente001 Oct 16 '19 at 14:23
  • You might point out the difference in proof regarding defamation per se and per quod. – George White Oct 16 '19 at 17:46
  • @GeorgeWhite I only touched on that difference in the 3rd bullet point by mentioning the need to prove concrete losses. Although I agree with you that the distinction is relevant, elaborating on that difference would depart from the OP's inquiry (of whether or not a plaintiff's effort in litigating defamation is comparatively "minimal"), whereas I touched on the issues of IIED and harassment only because they are mentioned in the comments chain that prompted the OP to post their question. – Iñaki Viggers Oct 16 '19 at 18:29
  • @IñakiViggers - I really appreciate your thorough answer. I've only touched on the links you provided so far. My goodness, you've been through a lot. I'm on the edge of my chair to know if you ever received justice. Do you have a link for me, with the spoiler, of how things eventually turned out for you in the two cases? Did you find justice? Was it worth all the work you did? In my special education advocacy, I did win on appeal, but it turned out not to help in the short term, because my son's school district continued to play the same games after our win. But in a child's life,... – aparente001 Oct 16 '19 at 23:18
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That SE Meta comment linked to an article that contained -

Defamation per se

Most states recognize that some categories of statements are considered to be defamatory per se, such that people making a defamation claim for these statements do not need to prove that the statement was defamatory.[143]

In an action for defamation per se, the law recognizes that certain false statements are so damaging that they create a presumption of injury to the plaintiff's reputation, allowing a defamation case to proceed to verdict with no actual proof of damages. Although laws vary by state, and not all states recognize defamation per se, there are four general categories of false statement that typically support a per se action:[137]

accusing someone of a crime;
alleging that someone has a foul or loathsome disease;
adversely reflecting on a person's fitness to conduct their business or trade; and
imputing serious sexual misconduct.

It seems that just proving that one of a small number of specific things were stated could establish defamation without establishing that the statement actually caused damage.

Outside of these listed things, defamation has more elements to prove. From a Cornell law web site -

To prove prima facie defamation, a plaintiff must show four things: 1) a false statement purporting to be fact; 2) publication or communication of that statement to a third person; 3) fault amounting to at least negligence; and 4) damages, or some harm caused to the person or entity who is the subject of the statement.

EDIT

Not a news report or a case but from a Nolo Site called AllLaw -

Defamation Per Se v. Defamation Per Quod.

Defamation per se means that the statement is obviously defamatory; the court does not have to interpret or study the defamatory statement to know that it would harm the plaintiff. With defamation per quod, on the other hand, the plaintiff needs to provide an explanation why the statement is defamatory. This is common where the statement is an inducement or innuendo. With defamation per se, presumed damages are available. Defamation per quod typically requires proof of actual damages

My conclusion is that I think it is competently wrong that any law suit takes very little effort. And it doesn't look like the issue that brought this up on SE Meta involves one of the four special cases. See the good answer from @Iñaki Viggers

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  • Thanks. // It would be really helpful to see a news report or a judicial decision that shows that very little work was needed. – aparente001 Oct 16 '19 at 5:02
  • Not a news report or a case but from a Nolo Site called AllLaw - Defamation Per Se v. Defamation Per Quod. Defamation per se means that the statement is obviously defamatory; the court does not have to interpret or study the defamatory statement to know that it would harm the plaintiff. With defamation per quod, on the other hand, the plaintiff needs to provide an explanation why the statement is defamatory. This is common where the statement is an inducement or innuendo. With defamation per se, presumed damages are available. Defamation per quod typically requires proof of actual damages. – George White Oct 16 '19 at 5:09
  • Thanks. I hope you will add this to your answer. // I do think it would be helpful to include an example, to be able to show how little work (time and product) were needed. – aparente001 Oct 16 '19 at 5:13
  • I'm not arguing in agreement with the premise that defamation suits take little effort, just pointing out that there is a category of defamation suits that are easier than others based on the statement falling into one of four special cases. – George White Oct 16 '19 at 17:42
  • George - Thanks for the clarification. Could you clarify a bit further? What is your view of the assertion that the plaintiff need make very little effort to successfully bring a suit of defamation? – aparente001 Oct 16 '19 at 18:01
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The quoted comment is not correct.

The First Amendment makes defamation cases very difficult to win.

A case of "defamation per se" is a bit easier than a standard defamation case, as the plaintiff does not need to prove damages, but she still otherwise prove all the elements of her case, which are:

  1. a false statement;

  2. about the plaintiff;

  3. published to a third party;

  4. causing damages to the plaintiff.

And if the plaintiff is a public figure or if the defamatory statement addressed a matter of public concern, there are all sorts of procedural hurdles that will make it very difficult for the plaintiff to overcome the defendant's First Amendment rights to speak about her or her conduct.

In this case, because the moderator in question is a volunteer, this isn't a case of defamation per se, so she would need to prove damages, which I suspect would be minimal, especially given the lopsided reaction to the post in her favor.

But the most problematic piece will be the second prong, as the SE statement about the case never identified the moderator in question. One of the posts did, but only because Monica herself edited it to include her name.

Proving that the statement is false will also be difficult, as the courts will require not just that the statement is literally false, but that in the overall context of the entire statement, it left readers with an impression of her that was more damaging than the full truth.

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