From Judge John Cronan’s decision today in Graterol-Garrido c. Vega (SDNY); it’s interesting and detailed (32 pages), but here is the Introduction:
Plaintiff Maria Herminia Graterol-Garrido filed a lawsuit against defendant Patricia Maria Vega, alleging that Vega made several defamatory statements about her on May 16, 2020. In 2010, Vega had a sexual encounter with Graterol-Garrido’s husband , which resulted in the birth of a child early the following year. The allegedly defamatory statements included social media posts accusing Graterol-Garrido of misconduct related to the resulting family legal proceedings, Graterol-Garrido’s financial dealings and other matters. Vega also sent messages on Facebook to Graterol-Garrido’s potential commercial subsidiary in Australia, conveying similar allegations.
A two-day trial was held on November 9 and 10, 2021. For the reasons that follow, the Court finds in favor of Graterol-Garrido on all causes of action, finding that Vega defamed Graterol-Garrido through various statements made on May 16. , 2020, and grants judgment in the amount of $5,000….
Graterol-Garrido studied law in Venezuela before earning graduate degrees from Harvard University and Columbia Law School. She has specialized in the defense of women’s rights since 1995, has worked extensively with the United Nations, notably as a consultant, and has served on the board of directors of various non-profit institutions.
And for damage:
“The alleged damages are justified on the grounds that forms of defamation which are actionable in themselves are virtually certain to cause serious reputational harm, and that such harm is extremely difficult to prove.” Similarly, “mental and emotional distress” is difficult to prove. However, the “right to general damages does not imply a right to substantial damages”, which requires “a finding of substantial harm”.
The Court therefore takes into account the damage caused to Graterol-Garrido when assessing the damages. As I just noted, there was real harm here. The most obvious professional harm for Graterol-Garrido came from Vega’s messages to the Think+Do Tank Foundation. After receiving the messages, the Foundation launched an internal investigation that compelled Graterol-Garrido to hand over sensitive documents and involved interviews with Graterol-Garrido’s friends and professional colleagues. While going through a very difficult time, Graterol-Garrido had to provide the Foundation with deeply personal information about her crumbling marriage, as well as references to vouch for her character.
Graterol-Garrido still received a seat on the board, but agreed with the Foundation that she should not be its chairperson over fears Vega’s allegations would negatively impact fundraising efforts. of the Foundation. And again, the failure of Vega’s defamation to further hamper Graterol-Garrido’s relationship with the Foundation was not due to a lack of effort on Vega’s part. Vega explicitly “urged” the Foundation “to keep clear accounts to ensure [Graterol-Garrido’s] financial misconduct… does not repeat itself.”
Another harm Graterol-Garrido suffered came from his decision to affirmatively disclose Vega’s allegations online when applying for potential positions. And Graterol-Garrido testified credibly that Vega’s allegations caused her to stop using social media and impacted her willingness to pursue certain professional opportunities.
The Court also considered the harm caused while bearing in mind the limited distribution of Vega’s social media posts. Vega testified that the Facebook Post and Twitter Post were quickly deleted by social media services, and there is no evidence to the contrary. The short time that these defamatory messages were visible mitigates the damage they caused. Graterol-Garrido has provided no evidence as to the number of Vega’s “friends” on Facebook or “followers” on Twitter, and there is no reason to believe that his personal social media pages had any particularly large audience.
At the same time, Vega has made numerous online allegations about Graterol-Garrido beyond the Facebook Post and Twitter Post since this litigation began. She also, at least to some degree, tried to prevent her defamatory Twitter post from being taken down by the company. Vega also hinted that she had nothing to lose, given her current financial situation, which further justifies Graterol-Garrido’s concern that Vega’s defamatory conduct will continue. Indeed, as noted above, Vega continued to post social media posts attacking Graterol-Garrido even after Graterol-Garrido initiated this litigation.
Considering all of these factors, the Court awards Graterol-Garrido $5,000 in damages for his injuries. The Court is not of the opinion that a new award of punitive damages is appropriate.
I hope the plaintiff was happy simply because of the public exemption, even though I expect it to be quite an expensive exemption. Of course, the reference to Vega “implying that she has nothing to lose, given her current financial situation” suggests that a $5,000,000 reward wouldn’t have yielded virtually different financial results from a $5,000 reward.
Kudos to Joshua B. Katz of Kent, Beatty & Gordon, LLP, who represented the plaintiff.