Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, But Publically Criticizing My Actions as President of the Executive Board Will Never Hurt Me

September 5, 2019
Aaron S. Marines

This is a classic story of a divided association Board. Two Board Members think one way while the third Board Member disagrees. In this case, the two new Board Members made some criticisms of prior Boards. The single Board Member, who happened to be the Board President, was on the previous Boards being complained about. This is (unfortunately) not a unique story. The twist in this case is that the solo Board Member filed a defamation suit against the Association. I have had lots of people related to Associations – Board Members, property managers, contractors – ask me about defamation or libel law suits. This is one of the few times I have seen a case make it to Court.

The solo Board Member claimed that the other two Board Members made defamatory statements about him. He alleged that the statements lowered his esteem and reputation among the Board Members and the vendors who work with or for the Association. He said that the two Board Members’ statements caused people in the neighborhood not to associate with him and to “discount his authority as a Board Member.” 

The Court found there was no defamation. First, the solo Board Member did not show any actual harm caused by the statements. The Court said it is not enough that the Board Member was embarrassed or annoyed. To show actual harm, the Board Member must have “suffered a kind of harm which has grievously fractured his standing in the community of respectable society.”

Lawyers read things like “grievously fractured” and “the community of respectable society” and we pretend to know exactly what they mean. I have a vague idea about respectable society. Being grievously fractured in any way sounds like it would hurt.

The Court also said that the statements of the two Board Members were not defamatory. The Court said that the statements of the two Board Members were not intended to harass the reputation of the solo Board Member. Even if there were any statements that could have damaged the Board Member’s reputation, they were clearly only statements of opinion. When a statement is only an expression of opinion, it cannot be defamatory. The last sentence of the opinion wraps the case up nicely. The Court said that the statements of the other two Board Members may be annoying or embarrassing, but they are not actionable as defamatory.

It goes without saying that this matter (which lasted over three years) probably cost the residents of the community lots of money in legal fees. More than that, I am sure it created personal conflict among many neighbors. Instead of this, I hope that all of the Associations I work with can remain civil and not over react to honest criticisms.

Aaron Marines is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University and practices in a variety of areas including Commercial Real EstateLand Use, Land Planning and Zoning matters.