Jury says Hoff didn’t lie, but has to pay anyway

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While the jury found that statements made by John Hoff in his blog about Jerry Moore’s involvement with a fraudulent mortage transaction at 1564 Hillside Avenue were not false, they still awarded $60,000 in damages to Jerry Moore for interference with his employment at the University of Minnesota and potential future benefits and for emotional distress. The award was $35,000 for “loss of benefits” and $25,000 for emotional distress.

Jerry Moore sued blogger John Hoff for damages based on claims of defamation and interference with contract.

For the defamation claim, Moore needed to prove that the statement below, written in Hoff’s blog, was false:

“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.” 

Because Judge Reilly ruled before the trial that Moore was a limited public figure, Moore needed to prove not only that the statement was false, but also that Hoff acted with malice in making the statement.  Because the jury found that the statements Hoff made were not false, they never arrived at the question of malice.

The second claim was that Hoff’s calls for investigation and action, posted on his blog, constituted intentional interference with Moore’s employment contract at the University of Minnesota. A third claim said that the blog posts damaged his prospects for future employment.

In his closing arguments, Paul Godfread, Hoff’s lawyer said proving “malice” would mean that Hoff wrote the statement knowing it was false, or with a reckless disregard for the truth.  Godfread said that Hoff thought the statement was true when he made it, and that, in fact, the statement was true. It appears that the jury agreed.

To support the claim that the statement was true, Godfread had submitted into evidence three items, which were obtained by Melony Micheals, the victim in a fraud case against Larry Maxwell that included the property located at 1564 Hillside Ave N. in Minneapolis. The documents included copies of a HUD settlement statement for the fraudulent purchase, which named Jerry Moore as one of the people receiving a payment, a check for $5000 made out to Moore for “consulting services” on the house, and an invoice from J.L. Moore Consulting for “Windows” at 1564 Hillside.

As for the claim of interference with contract, Godfread said in his closing statement that the prosecution was relying on accusations without evidence.  Further, he stated that Hoff’s justification for writing his blog post was that it was in the public’s interest, as public funds went toward the program that Moore worked for. 

Moore’s attorney Jill Clark said in her closing statement that much of the discussion of the First Amendment and freedom of the press as it relates to blogs “is really not relevant.”  She also said, “There need to be some limits on blogs.”  Clark pointed to Hoff’s lack of objective reporting.  “The reporter loses objectivity when he enters the story,” she said.

To support Moore’s second two claims, Clark pointed to Hoff’s blog post written on June 23, 2009 , which included the statement:

It was reportedly coverage on this blog which “blew open” the issue of Moore’s hiring and forced the hand of U of M decision-makers after the issue had been quietly, respectfully brought to their attention over a week ago. I am told pages were printed from my previous blog post about Moore’s hiring by UROC, including the extensive comment stream, and these pages got “waved around” a bit in a discussion at U of M.

 Clark argued that Hoff’s wording “forced the hand” is Hoff bragging about getting Jerry Moore fired.  “That’s not about speech,” she said.  “That’s about conduct.” 

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