A libel lawsuit being prosecuted by a Connecticut law firm against a California-based legal practice is showing some of the perils of using legal blogs.
Karl D. Shehu, whose Shehu LLC law firm is based in Waterbury, filed a lawsuit alleging defamation by San Diego-based attorney William Adams, of Norton Moore & Adams.
One key ruling so far in the case has been that the Connecticut attorney having a blog and the California lawyer having a blog is not enough to maintain a cause of action under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA). Another key ruling is that it is insufficient to maintain a CUTPA cause of action if the attorneys are in competition to have their websites appear at the top of search engine results.
According to court papers, Adams sent two emails to Shehu LLC and two officials at the Connecticut Bar Association, Alice Bruno and Bill Chapman, alleging that Shehu spammed his blog, commented on an article with mass-produced, irrelevant remarks, and otherwise “used a dishonest ruse.” The subject line allegedly read: “Your Spam is a professional ethics violation.” Adams further alleged, according to court papers, that the conduct was unethical and violated American Bar Association professional responsibility rules.
In Shehu’s lawsuit, the Connecticut attorney alleges Adams made the comments knowing they were false and with the intention of causing harm to Shehu’s reputation and career as an attorney.
In a third email, Adams allegedly contacted the bar association officials again and stated he had no evidence that anyone at the Shehu law firm had personal knowledge of the comments, and he concluded that the comments were “part of an internet marketing campaign by Shehu LLC.”
Adams’ Connecticut counsel, William E. Murray of Gordon & Rees in Glastonbury, said there were comments on his client’s blog that had nothing to do with the articles they were posted on, and those comments were linked back to Shehu’s website. “My client, unfortunately sent emails to the entities he believed responsible for handling” this sort of matter, Murray said.
The judge “got it right that there’s no business relationship,” Murray said, adding that the parties are on opposite coasts of the continent and have nothing to do with each other.
They are now engaged in discovery, Murray said.
Shehu said in an emailed statement: “While we are disappointed by the court’s decision, we respect Judge Roche and the legal process. Our case continues. We will have our day in court.”
Other defendants include John Doe legal entities that Shehu says are owned by Adams. “The defendant breached its duty of care by failing to have adequate procedures in place that would ensure its employees and members would not use a firm email address to disseminate maliciously false and misleading statements relating the plaintiffs,” Shehu claims.
In an answer, Adams admitted to sending the emails, but he denied the emails were alleging facts or that they were libelous. Adams also said in his answer that the statements of fact by the plaintiffs were false.
The case was removed for a period of time to federal court before being remanded to state court.
Last month, Waterbury Judicial District Superior Court Judge Vincent E. Roche struck two of Shehu’s claims asserting unfair trade practices in violation of CUTPA against Adams and his law firm.
The defendants argued that the allegations of unfair trade practices failed because the plaintiffs did not have a consumer, commercial or any other kind of business relationship with the defendants. The plaintiffs argued the relationships stemmed from the fact that Shehu and Adams were both attorneys, that Shehu and the defendants engaged in Internet marketing efforts, and both Shehu and the defendants used blogs to share legal information online.
CUTPA is designed to protect two classes: consumers from unfair or deceptive acts or practices, and competitors or businesspeople who are in business together from unfair competition, the judge said. But “business people, who are not direct competitors, must have some type of commercial relationship with the alleged wrongdoer—commercial relationship not being so much a business relationship but some kind of relationship in the marketplace so that the particular acts of wrongdoing alleged will interfere with fair and open competition in that particular marketplace,” the judge said.
The judge said the plaintiffs and defendants were not competitors and were not in a commercial relationship in the marketplace. “Before the alleged Internet posting, the plaintiffs and the defendants most likely did not know of the other parties’ existence,” Roche said. “The plaintiffs cannot now claim that there is a competitive relationship between them merely because both entities engage in the practice of law and use the Internet for a marketing purpose or to ‘blog.’”
Even if the attorneys are competitors in appearing at the top of search results, “the parties practice law in their respective states and potential clients or customers searching for a lawyer using the Internet would not necessarily make that decision based on the first firm listed on a search engine’s results,” Roche said.
The plaintiffs’ claims of libel per se, negligence and negligent supervision remain pending.•