A Maryland appeals court has ruled that emails sent to owners in a Baltimore condominium association by the condo President regarding a recent burglary were not defamatory with regard to the owner whose condominium unit was broken into.
An email was sent to another owner who reported the burglary and copied to several board members in part stating: “What do you think I should do in response to your email? Should I ask to be appointed police commissioner so I can station cops in our community 24/7? Should I tell our neighbors not to associate with criminals who might want to cause harm to them”?
A second email was sent to all owners which, in part, stated: “This was not a random or opportunistic crime. Although I do not know the status of the Police Department’s Investigation, it is apparent that this was a targeted crime in which the perpetrators knew the victim”.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals, in Shulman v. Rosenberg, determined that those statements alone were not defamatory because the statements were general and did not refer to the owner who alleged defamation, and the words did not imply that the owner had committed a crime. Nor were the emails defamatory when interpreted in the context of the surrounding circumstances. The court noted that not every statement which casts an unfavorable or disparaging light on a person supports a legal claim of defamation.
Qualified “Fair Comment” Privilege
The court further explained that, even if the emails could be viewed as defamatory about the owners whose unit was burglarized, communications between members of a group are protected by a qualified “fair comment” privilege. This allows members of a condominium or other community to express a fair and reasonable opinion or comment on matters of legitimate public interest without legal liability unless the privilege is abused.
The emails sent by the President of the condominium association were determined to be subject to the same fair comment privilege that other members of the community enjoyed. The court noted that opinions could be interpreted as factual if the facts which are the basis for the opinion are not provided.
However, allegations that an opinion is based on unverified statements of others and without further investigation in connection with the matter are not sufficient to show an abuse of the fair comment privilege. Nor was there adequate allegation to show malice which requires showing that the person making the statement knew it was false or had reckless disregard for the truth. Therefore, the court dismissed the defamation suit without a trial because the allegations, even if true, did not establish that the emails were defamatory.
Even though a qualified fair comment privilege applies to emails and other communications among association members, this litigation between an owner and the condominium President underscores the need for association boards, individual officers, committee members, and managers to be cautious in communicating about association matters in order to avoid provoking claims of defamation.
Posted by Thomas Schild Law Group, LLC, attorneys for condominiums, homeowner associations and housing cooperatives in Maryland -– including Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Howard County, Frederick County, and Baltimore County; and in Baltimore City and Washington, D.C.