Trivedi LLC v. Lang, A16-1209 (Minn. App.) Mat 1, 2017. Unpublished.
Mahendra Trivedi and his related corporation and foundation claim that peer-reviewed research confirms Trivedi’s claimed capacity for energy healing, from which Trivedi has earned millions of dollars. Freelance journalist Dennis Lang commenced investigation of Trivedi’s claims, including eliciting information about Trivedi’s activities through an online discussion group operated by a former Trivedi employee. Lang posted criticism of Trivedi on that site.
Trivedi sued for defamation because Lang opined that Trivedi is a sham, engages in unlawful business practices, and engages in sexual improprieties.
On appeal from dismissal of Trivedi’s suit, the Minnesota appellate court found that Trivedi’s claims and the controversies surrounding them were sufficient to regard Trivedi as a limited purpose public figure, triggering a heightened standard of liability by requiring that “actual malice” be shown in publication of any allegedly defamatory statement.
On appeal, both parties urged the appellate court to create new tests for internet defamation cases, which the court declined to do. The court declined to accept, as beyond its powers as a court of intermediate review, the parties’ mutual invitation to add to the “public controversy” component of limited public figure status a requirement of proof of additional associated print or broadcast attention relating to any online statements in issue in litigation. Moreover, the court declined to find, as Lang urged, that some statements are perse publicly controversial, such as statements about the supernatural. Instead, the court found that established law does not require “widespread reporting” of controversial statements, although such reporting may be evidence of public controversy.
Notwithstanding its circumspection concerning fashioning new “public controversy” requirements, the appellate court unhesitatingly found that online journalists are to be accorded the same professional status as those operating in more traditional media, making “media defendant” status applicable to Lang, which would, in turn, require that Trevidi meet the “actual malice” to overcome the media defendant status Lang enjoys.
The appellate court observed that product promotion, even where widespread, is insufficient, standing alone, to create public controversy. However, the court found Trivedi’s statements about his healing work and its scientific affirmation created public controversy in which he participated that actively related to his statements, making application of the heightened “actual malice” standard appropriate.
The reviewing court declined to disturb the trial court’s conclusions concerning the absence of evidence of actual malice concerning Lang’s characterization of Trivedi’s enterprises as a “sham,” nor was there evidence that multiply-sourced statements concerning Trivedi’s business practices were recklessly published.
The limited public figure and public controversy issues were not present allegations concerning Trivedi’s sexual conduct, to which ordinary standards applicable to non-public figures apply, and which, as a result, requires remand for further proceedings.