Pa. Superior Court panel affirms dismissal of inmate's defamation suit against Post-Gazette

By Jon Campisi | Mar 18, 2013

A three-judge panel of the state Superior Court has affirmed a trial court’s decision to

dismiss a pro se complaint by a prison inmate that was lodged against a western Pennsylvania daily newspaper.

The appeals judges, in their March 12 non-precedential decision, affirmed a June 19, 2012 order of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas dismissing a lawsuit brought against the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Tanji Curtis.

On May 18 of last year, while he was incarcerated at the Elkton Correctional Institution in the neighboring state of Ohio, Curtis filed a pro se civil complaint against the Post-Gazette asserting claims of defamation.

Curtis claimed that the newspaper had defamed him by falsely stating that he had agreed to testify before a federal grand jury in an ongoing drug case and that Curtis had cooperated in a drug investigation, the Superior Court decision states.

Curtis had claimed that the statements were “false, injurious and potentially life-threatening,” due to the fact that a fellow inmate, who was a Pittsburgh resident, and shared a dining room table with the plaintiff in prison, refused to associate with Curtis after learning of the newspaper article.

Curtis had claimed that he had grown fearful after the fellow inmate said he would stop sitting near the plaintiff in the prison dining hall because the man “didn’t eat with snitches,” according to court papers.

The trial court, however, had found that pursuant to the Restatement (Second) of Torts, the prison population amongst whom Curtis claimed to be defamed was not “respectable society.”

The trial court therefore determined that Curtis failed to state a claim for defamation and dismissed his complaint as frivolous.

On appeal, Curtis argued that the trial court abused its discretion when it dismissed the complaint without granting Curtis an opportunity to amend the complaint to cure any defects, and that the court erroneously found that the plaintiff’s motion for reconsideration was time-barred, when Curtis contended he filed the motion prior to the 30-day time limitation.

On the first issue, in which Curtis asserted that the trial court abused its discretion in dismissing the lawsuit prior to the applicable time limitation and failed to grant Curtis the opportunity to amend his complaint, the appeals panel wrote that in a defamation case, if the trial court determines that the challenged publication is not capable of a defamatory meaning, there is no basis for the matter to proceed to trial.

In this case, the Superior Court judges determined that the trial court was correct in determining that the plaintiff’s defamation claim was frivolous.

“It is not enough that the victim of the [statements] … be embarrassed or annoyed, he must have suffered the kind of harm which has grievously fractured his standing in the community of a respectable society,” the judges wrote, citing the 2005 Superior Court case of Weber v. Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.

The panel wrote that the “fact that a communication tends to prejudice another in the eyes of even a substantial group is not enough if the group is one whose standards are so anti-social that it is not proper for the courts to recognize them.”

On the plaintiff’s second issue on appeal, the assertion that the trial court erred in determining his motion for reconsideration was untimely filed, the Superior Court panel wrote that they agree, however, in light of the trial court’s alternative disposition that Curtis’s complaint was frivolous, “we deem it harmless error.”

“Accordingly, any error committed by the trial court when it deemed the motion was untimely is harmless,” the decision states. “Appellant’s second issue is without merit.”

The decision was written by Senior Superior Court Judge William H. Platt.

Joining Platt were Judges Christine L. Donohue and Sallie Updyke Mundy.

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