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Reynolds v. Reynolds - 1/31/2013

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That Courts Must Determine as a Matter of Law Whether Allegedly Defamatory Material Is Capable of Bearing a Particular Meaning, and Whether That Meaning Is Defamatory.

Plaintiffs, two siblings, filed a complaint against their sister and her husband (the “Golds”) alleging defamation and false light.  Their claims stem from their sister’s online article discussing their mother’s end-of-life care.  The siblings alleged the article falsely stated that their mother “has no plan” for her end-of-life care, and insinuated that the siblings were responsible for the lack of a plan.  The Golds moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim, which the superior court granted.  The siblings timely appealed.

The Arizona Appeals Court affirmed, holding that the article was not defamatory and did not present the siblings in a false light.  “To be defamatory, a publication must be false and must bring the defamed person into disrepute, contempt, or ridicule, or must impeach plaintiff’s honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation.”  Turner v. Devlin, 174 Ariz. 201, 203-04, 848 P.2d 286, 288-89 (1993) (citations omitted).  Courts must determine as a matter of law “whether a communication is capable of bearing a particular meaning,” and, if so, “whether that meaning is defamatory.”  Restatement (Second) of Torts § 614(2).  In this case, the Court held that the article as a whole could not be read as suggesting that the siblings were responsible for the lack of an end-of-life plan, and thus the defamation claim failed as a matter of law.

With respect to the false light claim, the Court explained that a defendant in a false-light case cannot be liable “unless the publication places the plaintiff in a false light highly offensive to a reasonable person.”  Godbehere v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 162 Ariz. 335, 340, 783 P.2d 781, 786 (1989).  The Court held that because the article could not be read as suggesting that the siblings were responsible for the lack of a plan, it did not place them in a false light.

The Court denied the Golds’ request for attorneys’ fees under A.R.S. § 12-349(A)(1), explaining that the record and briefs did not establish that the siblings’ claims constituted harassment, were groundless, and were not made in good faith.  Cypress on Sunland Homeowners Ass’n v. Orlandini, 227 Ariz. 288, 301 ¶ 49, 257 P.3d 1168, 1181 (App. 2011).

Presiding Judge Hall authored the opinion; Judges Swann and Thumma concurred.

Posted by Sharad H. Desai

Posted On: 2/14/2013