Defamation of character.) is the legal term for a statement that damages someone's reputation. If the information is in writing (including on the internet), it is a libel; if it is spoken only, it is called slander. Defamation is a tort, a civil wrong rather than a criminal wrong. Each state sets the defamation rules, so you will want to confirm things in your state, but the following is a general discussion of how to sue for defamation of character in small claims court on your own (pro se).
What Do You Have to Prove in a Defamation Case?
When we talk about what you have to prove in a tort case, we refer to the elements of the offense. The elements of defamation require you to verify that the defendant:
Published a statement about you
Published, in this case, means someone else heard or read it. The information can even be a picture or a gesture. Because it's harder to get rid of a written notice, most courts, juries, and insurance companies will consider libel more harmful than slander.
That the statement was false
The statement must be false; the truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim. Opinions aren't defamation, and truth can't generally injure you. There are some cases involving the public exposure of private facts in a way that can damage your reputation. But, in the simplest terms, it has to be a false statement about you.
And the information injured you in a way that monetary damages can cure
Generally, you have to prove that the defendant's argument damaged you. Maybe you lost your job, or your landlord kicked you out. However, if the false statement relates to your profession or profession, claims that you committed a crime of moral turpitude, implies that you were unchaste, or suffer from a loathsome disease, you do not have to prove damages. The court will instruct the jury to presume that those statements damaged you. The last three demonstrate that the court will presume damages if the defamation damages your business reputation or moral character. You will not have to prove them.
For which the defendant had no privilege
Sometimes the law permits a false statement to be made because of the circumstances in which it was made. If the information was true, or an opinion, or you had committed to the publication, you will not be successful in a defamation claim. Sometimes a retraction will also bar your recovery.
Absolute privileges are situations where the person making the statement can say whatever they like, and you cannot object. This usually occurs in judicial proceedings, during legislative sessions by legislators, political broadcasts or speeches, or comments by high government officials. Note that it is narrowly interpreted. If a legislator defames you on the floor of the House, shame on the legislator. You can sue if the legislator does it in the hallway after the session.
Qualified privileges mean that the person who made the statement had some right to say it. Some of the occasions when that will occur are governmental reports of proceedings, statements by lower-level government officials, testimony during legislative hearings, statements made in self-defense or to warn others, some statements made by a former employer to a potential new employer, book or film reviews. The employer privilege is most well-known since, because of it, your employer probably won't do much beyond confirming your employment dates.
How to File
To file a case in small claims, you must file a complaint stating the above elements. You must provide whatever proof you have of each element, not necessarily with your complaint but in the case. Some of it may be documents and some may be testimony by people involved. You can do this pro se or with an attorney. However, two things to keep in mind are that some states do not permit using an attorney in small claims and that the amounts you can recover may be too small for your adequate recovery.
If you do decide to proceed on your own, filing and service companies like LegalPine and Dispute can help you make sure that you meet all the filing requirements for your case. Online filing services offer the ease of filing and case management without the cost of a lawyer.