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Unsolicited advice on career move was defamatory, court affirms

They say that free advice is not always worth the price. One Minnesota man learned that the hard way, after the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed that there is no qualified privilege in Minnesota for defamatory statements made while dispensing unsolicited career advice.

In Christopher Abdul-Haqq, et al. v. David LaLiberte, et al., decided on Jan. 30, the statements that were deemed defamatory emerged out of correspondence between former business associates.

David LaLiberte owns Liberte Construction LLC, which is a storm damage repair company. He hires sales representatives to do inspections on projects and sign contracts with homeowners. In 2017, LaLiberte contracted with Liam Hawkins to serve as a sales representative.

Three years later, Hawkins agreed to work for a different company, associated with Christopher Abdul-Haqq. Hawkins was in the process of finishing his work with LaLiberte when, out of the blue, LaLiberte sent a series of unsolicited text messages about Hawkins’ career choices.

Regarding the business itself, LaLiberte wrote, “These are the guys that have F r[a]tings with BBB but just change the name of the company. Just like we warn people about.” Then, Hawkins received a message about Abdul-Haqq’s brother, Stephen, texting that he “was charged for le[w]d sexual conduct with a minor.”

LaLiberte claimed that he sent the messages because he did not want Hawkins to get hurt through associations with the new business and wished for him to make an informed decision. Hawkins expressed surprise because he never asked LaLiberte for his opinion about his associations with his new employer. Hawkins eventually showed the messages to Christopher Abdul-Haqq; subsequently, Christopher and his brother filed suit.

The brothers filed a complaint alleging two counts of defamation per se. The district court found that the comment accusing Stephen Abdul-Haqq of being charged with a sex crime against a minor was defamatory per se and granted summary judgment to the Haqqs. However, the court concluded that that there was a genuine issue of material fact about whether the company rating comment referenced the brothers’ company. There was a jury trial to determine the damages for the defamatory per se statement and to allow resolution of the fact questions surrounding the second text message.

Ultimately, the jury awarded $50,000 in damages for humiliation and embarrassment and $150,000 in punitive damages for the sex-crime text. The jury, determining that the second statement did refer to the Haqqs’ business, awarded $100,000 in punitive damages.

On appeal, LaLiberte argued that qualified privilege applied to the defamatory statements.

Stephen Buterin, principal at Droel PLLC, argued that the district court erred in not applying qualified privilege to this case.

“Mr. LaLiberte considered Mr. Hawkins a friend, and he was simply trying to give him career advice,” Buterin said. “So, it was out of a feeling of, I guess, benevolence that he made the statements that he did to Mr. Hawkins.”

LaLiberte, according to Buterin, also advised Hawkins to do his own research regarding those claims.

While Buterin admitted that Minnesota law did not explicitly recognize this defense for defamatory statements made in providing unsolicited career advice — nor was there any other jurisdiction recognizing it — he nevertheless asked the court to recognize the qualified privilege in this context. Buterin argued that the text messages where analogous to an employer’s response to an inquiry about a former employee.

Minnesota does recognize qualified privilege for solicited employment references, reasoning that public interest requires that information about employees’ actions and behavior be provided if that information is solicited. However, the court found that there were not similar policy considerations in this instance. “LaLiberte offers no reason why such unsolicited statements should be encouraged despite the risk that such statements might be defamatory,” the court wrote.

Thomas Boyd, shareholder at Winthrop & Weinstine, represented the Haqqs.

“Even if we assume this qualified privilege could apply to this sort of situation, even if we assume that the undisputed facts do not prevent it from being applied in this case, even if it could apply, it is still dead on arrival based on the jury’s finding that not only did Mr. LaLiberte continued to make and publish these statements repeatedly, even after he knew they were false, but [the jury] found that these statements were causelessly and wantonly made for the purpose of injuring the respondents,” Boyd said. “Even if qualified immunity could be applied, it has been abused.”

The court affirmed the finding of the trial court, concluding that any expansion of qualified privilege must come from the Minnesota Supreme Court or the Legislature.

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