Minnesota appeals court overturns jury award against blogger

Jack Komperda | Libel | News | August 21, 2012

John Hoff did not lie. Because of that, the Minneapolis blogger will not be held liable for the firing of a University of Minnesota employee.

A three-member panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday overturned a $60,000 award against Hoff, a blogger who publishes “The Adventures of Johnny Northside.”

"It's a complete vindication," Hoff said of the decision in an interview. "It's not like I was out dancing in a public place because I wanted to express myself. I was literally redressing my government over grievances. This was exactly the kind of speech the First Amendment was created for."

Hoff, whose blog, "The Adventures of Johnny Northside," focuses on community development in his neighborhood, wrote a scathing, but truthful, online posting in June 2009 that led to the termination of Jerry Moore, a newly hired employee of the university’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center.

The appellate court panel concluded that, regardless of his motivations, Hoff could not be held liable for interfering with Moore’s employment based on truthful information expressed through his blog.

Neither of Moore's two claims of tortious interference of contract and prospective business advantage required him to show that Hoff's statements were false. Moreover, the appellate court concluded that such claims could not be based on truthful information conveyed to a third party.

“When a person conveys unflattering and possibly damaging information to another person’s employer, it is unlikely that the motivation for conveying that information is borne out of affection,” Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks wrote for the court, which ordered the case sent back to Hennepin County District Court for judgment in Hoff’s favor. "Regardless of the motivation of the messenger, if the information conveyed is true, it is not appropriate for liability to attach."

Hoff accused Moore, who was hired that spring by the university to study foreclosures, of being involved in a “high-profile fraudulent mortgage.” University officials fired Moore the day after Hoff’s blog post appeared online.

A jury found last year that while Hoff’s posting was not defamatory, his online statements intentionally interfered with Moore’s employment contract and business prospects. The jury awarded Moore $35,000 in lost wage damages and another $25,000 for emotional distress. In post-trial motions, Hoff unsuccessfully argued for the judge to direct a verdict in his favor or order a new trial.

In addition to finding that Hoff could not be held liable for Moore’s termination based on his statements, the Court of Appeals also concluded that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that any actions Hoff made independent of his blog post amounted to interference with Moore’s employment prospects.

Judge Flaskamp Halbrooks noted in her opinion that the only such evidence presented in this case was testimony by an acquaintance of Hoff, who testified that “Hoff called him and asked him to send an e-mail to the University of Minnesota to try to get Moore terminated.”

“Hoff’s communication (with the acquaintance) is too intertwined with Hoff’s constitutionally protected blog post to accurately characterize it as independent tortious conduct,” Flaskamp Halbrooks wrote. “We therefore conclude that there is too great a risk of infringing on Hoff’s constitutional right to publish this information if he is held liable for Moore’s subsequent employment termination.”

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· NM&L: Truth doesn't protect Minnesota blogger from defamation suit; judge upholds Johnny Northside verdict