Lawyers continually warn their clients to be cautious about what they say on the internet and on social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Saying the wrong thing can harm a company’s reputation and even lead to costly business litigation.
However, sometimes lawyers don’t take their own advice. A New Jersey attorney is facing a defamation lawsuit after he characterized a defendant’s pet store as a “puppy mill.” This is not the first time this attorney has been in trouble for his online comments, according to the New Jersey Law Journal. Edward Heyburn was sued before for comments he made about his former employer, Levinson Axelrod.
Fancy Pups and its owners, Rocco and Laura Garruto, cite the prior incident with Levinson Axelrod in the current defamation lawsuit. Heyburn had sued the pet store on behalf of a New Jersey woman who bought a German shepherd puppy from Fancy Pups. The lawsuit claims that while Fancy Pups represented the dog to be a healthy, it died two weeks later from the parvovirus.
After filing the lawsuit, Heyburn allegedly used his firm’s website to paint a very unflattering picture of Fancy Pups. He allegedly posted a video that shows him serving Rocco Garruto with the lawsuit, under the heading “You’ve Been Served Rocco Garruto!” The Garrutos’ lawsuit also cites another posting entitled, “Certified Convictions for Rocco Garruto,” which links to 27 consumer fraud complaints. The Garrutos assert that the title is misleading, given that only five are actual convictions, and the complaints were not filed against Garruto personally.
In another entry on his website, Heyburn states that the Garrutos’ “puppy mill” knowingly sold sick puppies to unwitting consumers. “While customers thought they were taking home a Christmas present, they were actually taking home a dying dog that was set to drain their emotions and their bank accounts,” wrote Heyburn, who invited additional victims of “this fraud” to contact him.
In addition to defamation, the New Jersey lawsuit also alleges tortious interference and violation of the federal Anti-Cybersquatting Act. It seeks an injunction prohibiting Heyburn from using the internet or other social media to defame the Gurrutos or Fancy Pups. It also asks that Heyburn be required to issue a formal written retraction and apology on the internet and in the local media.
Given the potential for liability, attorneys should exercise extreme caution when posting to social media or elsewhere on the internet. No matter how strongly you feel about your position, it is never a good idea to post anything about ongoing cases. The same is true for media coverage regarding a case. Even anonymous comments on news sites can ultimately be traced back to the poster.
Here is the warning of this case: Don’t post anything online that you would not want to come back to haunt you. If it is defamatory in ink, then it is defamatory on screen. While social media is rewriting the marketing textbooks, all content you post on the internet is permanently saved somewhere on a server, even if the user later deletes it.