A federal judge dismissed a $5 million libel lawsuit by a former tax preparer against a Virginia television station that allegedly referred to him as “unscrupulous.”
The judge ruled last week that Timothy Hanks, owner of now defunct tax service Reliable Tax, failed to prove that the statements were "of and concerning him," meaning that the article neither directly or indirectly referred to him. The court also held that the statements were expressions of opinion, and were therefore constitutionally protected speech.
Hanks sued WAVY-TV for defamation following an April 2011 broadcast where Hanks alleged he was referred to as an “unscrupulous tax preparer” in a teaser for the story as well as an accompanying online article. The report focused on a customer of Reliable Tax who claimed that errors made by the company on his tax return had cost him money.
The court said though the online article used the word “unscrupulous,” it did not refer to Hanks specifically, but to tax preparers as a class of people. The article also references Reliable Tax’s owner but does not refer to Hanks by name. These references failed to establish any direct link to Hanks, according to the court.
“The Complaint does not allege an actionable reference to Timothy Hanks, and absent the fact that the Court has taken judicial notice that Plaintiff is the President of Reliable Tax, the Court would not have been able to establish any connection between the statements made and Plaintiff,” the court said.
Hanks could not prove the teaser also used the word “unscrupulous.” According to the opinion a recording of the teaser in question could not be produced by either party.
The word “unscrupulous” may be “an unflattering characterization,” according to the court, but the use of the word in the context of the article constitutes opinion and was not meant to refer specifically to Hanks.
“Contrary to Plaintiff’s assertions, a plain reading of the Article and viewing of the Newscast reveals that absolutely no reasonable person would infer that the language used in these publications affirmatively suggests that Defendants intended to or did endorse an inference that Plaintiff was an ‘unscrupulous tax preparer who had unlawfully controverted customers’ income tax refund payments, or unlawfully withheld payments owed to customers, or fraudulently filed false tax returns for customers,’” the court said.
Charles Tobin, attorney for Wavy Broadcasting, which owns WAVY-TV, said that the ruling supported the reporting of consumer opinion.
“It’s important for consumers to be able to talk to reporters — this decision supports that,” he said. “It’s a very good First Amendment case for the rights of journalists to report on consumer news.”