No Libel, But Blogger John Hoff Still Ordered to Pay $60K

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Blogger John Hoff (aka Johnny Northside) is appealing the ruling that he has to pay former community leader Jerry Moore $60,000 over a blog post. (Credit: Adventures of Johnny Northside)

Even though a jury found a Minnesota blogger didn’t report inaccurate information and a defamation lawsuit against him didn’t hold up in court, the blogger still was ordered to pay $60,000 to the plaintiff, former community leader Jerry Moore, the Star Tribune reported.

The blogger, John Hoff (who blogs under the name “Johnny Northside”), “linked” Moore to “a high-profile mortgage fraud” in a June 2009 blog post. In the post, Hoff wrote about Moore’s being hired by the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center. Moore, who was reportedly fired from  the Jordan Area Community Council after a reported January 2009 altercation with a board member, was “let go” from the university just one day after Hoff’s 2009 blog post.

According to the Star Tribune, Hoff’s blog has between 300 and 500 daily readers.  Hoff describes himself on his blog as a writer.

Moore sued and originally claimed there were “five allegedly biased and defamatory statements on Hoff’s blog.”  The judge dismissed four of the statements calling them “opinion or the comments of others on the blog.”  The fifth statement was ruled “tortious interference.”

Tortious interference is defined as “intentionally intermeddling with the business affairs of others.”

Hoff identified the statement in question as: “Repeated and specific evidence in Hennepin County District Court shows Jerry Moore was involved with a high-profile fraudulent mortgage at 1564 Hillside Ave. N.”

In the lawsuit, Moore “cast himself as Hoff’s victim, claiming defamation,” according to Minneapolis news site City Pages. “But the real victim here was the First Amendment,” he wrote.

Twin Cities Daily Planet reported  that in this case, Moore was considered “a limited public figure.” As such, to prove defamation, Moore had to show that Hoff’s statement was inaccurate and made with malice.  The jury concluded Hoff’s statement was “not false.” However, they did call for Hoff to pay Moore the $60,000 for lost wages and emotional distress.

Hoff blogged March 13 about the ruling and announced he is appealing it. “The First Amendment itself is under attack, and this blogger will not back down from the battle,” Hoff wrote.

University of Minnesota media law and ethics professor Jane Kirtley reportedly considered the lawsuit to be “an example of ‘trash torts,’ in which someone unable to sue for libel, which by definition involves falsity, reaches for another legal claim. She predicted the verdict will be overturned.”

“This is based on expression, and expression enjoys First Amendment protection,” Kirtley is quoted by the Star Tribune as saying.

“I find it really hard to believe that there was a degree of emotional distress caused by this reporting that outstrips that suffered by [a Marine’s family,” Kirtley said, noting the U.S. Supreme Court’s protection of Westboro Baptist Church’s protests.

Mortgage Fraud?

That mortgage fraud case that Hoff linked to Moore involved former real estate agent Larry Maxwell, who was sentenced to prison for 16 years.  Moore was not charged in that case.

According to a lengthy 2010 City Pages report about Moore, Maxwell was “the nucleus of what turned out to be the biggest mortgage fraud cases in Hennepin County history.”  Maxwell racked up “more than $2 million in loans using fraudulent documents,” the Star Tribune reported at the time of his 18-count conviction.  “The deals employed forgery, identity theft, and bogus loan applications.”

Moore got tied into the mortgage fraud controversy when Melony Michaels, whose husband, John Foster, had his identity stolen and used to take out four mortgages for two homes, uncovered a check from the bank to Moore for $5,000 for “windows” related to “the closing of 1564 Hillside.”   Moore explained in a 2009 civil case that he didn’t “recognize” the check or the invoice.

Moore was interim director of Jordan Area Community Council from October 2006 until March 2007, when he was named executive director of the council.

UPDATE: 3/22/2011 10:03 AM EST: Added definition of tortious interference above

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No Libel, But Blogger John Hoff Still Ordered to Pay $60K

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