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Gulrajaney v. Petricha

381 N.J. Super. 241, 885 A.2d 496 (App. Div. 2005)

CONDOMINIUMS; LIBEL—A candidate for a condominium’s board of directors is considered a limited public official with respect to defamatory statements about her or him.

During the course of an election for directors of a condominium association, a prospective purchaser of a unit from one of the candidates erroneously believed that the candidate-seller was not abiding by the contract. That prospective buyer sent an email message to the candidate-seller’s opponent and the content of the email message was circulated in the context of the election. The seller-candidate, although elected, claimed that “in his profession as a real estate broker, ‘he lost real estate commissions and listings as a result of the E-mail.’” Consequently, he sued the buyer, alleging defamation. The lower court “concluded that, while E-mail was defamatory, [the seller-candidate] was, in light of his participation in the election, a limited public figure in the condominium community. Therefore, he [was] required, but failed, to produce substantial evidence that [the person who wrote the E-mail message, his opponent, or anyone else] were motivated by actual malice or that they abused a conditional privilege that protected them from liability for publishing information under the reasonable belief that persons with a common interest in the subject matter were entitled to know the information published.”

On appeal, the seller-candidate argued “(1) that he was not a limited public figure with respect to the defamatory statements about him; (2) there was sufficient evidence of actual malice with respect to [the buyer] to have allowed the defamation claim against her to proceed to trial; and (3) [his opponent and the other individuals] abused whatever qualified privileges they may have had by over publishing the defamatory information.” The Appellate Division rejected each of those arguments even though it agreed that the statements in the E-mail message were defamatory. Under the law, “[p]ublic figures are those who ‘have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.’ ... The basis of this definition [is] the notion that such persons ‘usually enjoy significantly greater access to the channels of effective communication’ and, therefore, are able to more easily defend themselves. ... Thus, they may be justly burdened with the actual malice standard [as articulated in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan].” Deciding whether a person is a public or private figure is a question of law. To the Court, it didn’t matter that the condominium project was “a private development with a [private governing body] or that, as a candidate for [the association’s] Board, [the defamed candidate was] a private figure.” Earlier cases had held that “a candidate for a planned unit development association’s board of directors was a limited public figure, because ‘[a]s a candidate for election to the association’s board of directors, [he had] thrust himself into a spotlight which justified viewing him as a public figure for the limited purpose of his candidacy.” The Court believed that the same rationale applied in this case even though “the services provided in a planned unit development may be different than those provided in a condominium.” Nonetheless, according to the Court, “the significance of board of director elections to members of both communities is very much the same.” Here, the record indicated that this particular association’s “election was hotly contested and that owners and residents had a keen interest over its outcome and that the individuals who would exercise control over the community as a result.” In viewing the facts, the Court agreed with the lower court that the actual malice standard had not been met.

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