For those who practice in the domestic relations world, one of the great frustrations comes when a client asks us to extract a sometimes appropriate pound of flesh as compensation for the “pack of lies” contained in a divorce related court pleading. Although it comes in an unpublished opinion the July 14, 2016 opinion in Morley v. Collazzo, the analysis contained in Judge Patricia Jenkin’s opinion merits attention because it explains what “lies” are compensable and which are not. 2852 EDA 2016.
For a bit more than three years the parties were involved in a romantic relationship. It ended in early spring, 2013. A few months later, a senior executive at girlfriend’s employer began to receive anonymous mail that included nude photos of the girlfriend accompanied by letters alleging that she was guilty of larceny and illicit use of opiates. Girlfriend, when notified of this correspondence filed a police report. She next filed a Protection from Abuse claim. The PFA claimed that boyfriend was the source of the letters to the employer, that he had revealed details of their sexual relationship at a local bar and had demanded sex from girlfriend. It was also alleged that the boyfriend was depressed and that he was verbally abusive. The appellate decision waffles on the next question of “What result?” stating only that a temporary order was entered. One must infer that the PFA must have been withdrawn.
Almost a year later, boyfriend filed a defamation case including claims of false light and abuse of legal process. Girlfriend filed objections challenging the complaint on the basis that her court pleadings were absolutely privileged whether true or not. This prompted boyfriend to file an amended complaint suggesting that her pleadings were published outside of Court and that there was a wrongful use of civil proceedings. Girlfriend renewed her preliminary objections but these were overruled in early 2015. When girlfriend filed her answer to the tort complaint she again asserted that her pleading was privileged and true and did not proximately cause any injury to boyfriend. She also included an abuse of process claim of her own. With pleadings closed boyfriend noticed girlfriend’s deposition and demanded all correspondence she had with a state agency that licensed her and all correspondence with her employer. The response was a protective order request saying the documents were not relevant. This protective order was granted. Next came a motion for summary judgment by girlfriend. In August, 2015 the motion was granted.
Boyfriend appealed, claiming that the protective order precluded him from access to evidence that might otherwise have proved his case.
The standard here is error of law or abuse of discretion. The sum of the appeal is built around Pa. R.C.P. 4011 which precludes discovery that is either irrelevant or not having a proper purpose. The Superior Court recites that discovery matters are to be resolved by the trial courts and that reviewing courts will employ an abuse of discretion standard. No abuse found here.
As for whether the content of the abuse pleading was defamatory the court noted the 2012 decision in Richmond v. McHale, holding that statements by judges, attorneys, witnesses and parties made in the context of judicial proceedings are absolutely privileged. 35 A.3d at 784 (Pa. Super). From the Superior Court opinion it appears that girlfriend may have told her friends that boyfriend had sent letters to her employer and that she feared for her life. The appellate court found nothing defamatory in those statements. The plaintiff also had filed for a claim under the “false light” theory of invasion of privacy. This tort occurs where the fact related from one party to another about a third may be true but there were no bona fide reasons to publish the fact to third parties except to make a false impression. Krajewski v. Gusoff, 53 A.3d at 806 (Pa. Super. 2012).
Lastly the courts disposed of the wrongful use of civil proceedings claim under 42 Pa.C.S. 8351. The Superior Court affirmed the trial court finding that there was nothing grossly negligent in the filing of the Protection from Abuse claim. The statute requires that in order to recover the petitioner seeking relief has to have proceeded for a purpose other than prosecution of a legitimate legal claim.
The takeaways? Clients need to understand that a litigant can say just about anything in a court pleading without fear of liability although the allegations in girlfriend’s Protection from Abuse complaint test the outer limits of relevance in the context of 23 Pa. C.S.A’s 6102’s definition of abuse. At the same time, they also need to be reminded that faxing a copy of their complaint to the local newsroom or even bringing a copy for the family to review after Thanksgiving dinner has no privilege associated with it, even though the document has been time-stamped as a judicial document. Recall the ruling in Post v. Mendel, where a lawyer’s post trial missive to a judge attacking the trial conduct of his adversary prompted the Supreme Court to observe that not all communications with the court are immune from liability for defamation. Abuse of process requires the instigation of legal action with a corrupt purpose for which it was not designed. Wrongful use of civil proceedings is an action filed for which there is no good faith basis.