Defamation • Documentary Evidence • Punitive Damages • Abuse of Process

Rockman v. Aciukewicz, PICS Case No. 14-0515 (Pa. Super. April 1, 2014) (memorandum) Donohue, J. (13 pages).

Appellant Jeffrey A. Rockman appealed from the trial court’s order granting preliminary objections in the nature of demurrers filed by appellee John C. Aciukewicz. Affirmed.

On Dec. 21, 2007, Rockman filed a civil action against Stephen Taren to recover damages in connection with a 2005 incident involving an alleged assault on a public sidewalk in front of the Taren residence. Aciukewicz, an attorney, while not directly involved in the original lawsuit, represented Taren in his divorce action. Aciukewicz initiated an affidavit to Taren’s estranged wife requesting she support Taren’s defense and would be indemnified in the lawsuit. On or about Sept. 14, 2012, Rockman initiated the present action naming Aciukewicz as the defendant and alleged the affidavit contained false statements detailing the incident. Rockman argued the caption to the proposed affidavit included Ms. Taren’s name, falsely suggesting she had been named as a party to the lawsuit and was thus responsible, in whole or in part, for any resulting damages. According to Rockman, this misrepresentation was intended to enrage Ms. Taren into signing the proposed affidavit and he argued he was “greatly impugned in his good name and reputation.”

Rockman alleged defamation, civil conspiracy to commit defamation and abuse of process; Rockman sought both compensatory and punitive damages. Aciukewicz filed preliminary objections in the nature of demurrers. The trial court granted Aciukewicz’s preliminary objections and further granted Rockman leave to amend the complaint. Following the amended complaint, Aciukewicz again filed preliminary objections. The trial court granted the objections holding Rockman’s causes of action were based upon legally privileged information relating to Taren’s divorce and failed to allege sufficient facts to state a claim. Rockman appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the lower’s courts dismissal of Rockman’s defamation claim holding the statements at issue were not potentially defamatory. The court discerned no significant likelihood the affidavit statements could reasonably be understood as defamatory in any respect as it could not be perceived to have “blackened” Rockman’s reputation. Further, the misrepresentations were deemed not defamatory as the affidavit was merely perceived and one in which Ms. Taren failed to sign. In addition, the appellate court affirmed dismissal of the civil conspiracy claim holding Rockman failed to satisfy the requirement that the purpose of the alleged conspiracy was to harm him; rather the purpose, as alleged by Rockman, was to procure Ms. Taren’s signature on an affidavit. Next, the appellate court affirmed dismissal of abuse of process as Rockman failed to provide facts sufficient to support said claim. Specifically, as Ms. Taren never signed the affidavit, it was never introduced into evidence in the lawsuit, and therefore no “legal process” was used against Rockman. Finally, the court affirmed dismissal of punitive damages as any tort claim was previously dismissed. The appellate division affirmed the lower court’s decision to dismiss Rockman’s complaint.