Johnny Northside $60,000 judgment upheld in blog battle

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As reported in the Star Tribune, on August 22, Judge Denise Reilly denied a motion by the attorney of John Hoff (a.k.a. Johnny Northside) requesting judgment as a matter of law or in the alternative a new trial in a suit brought by Jerry Moore regarding posts on Hoff’s blog. The ruling came on a motion submitted by Hoff’s attorney, Paul Godfread, asking that the verdict be set aside or a new trial ordered on the basis that the jury’s verdict didn’t match the evidence. While the jury found that statements made by John Hoff in his blog about Jerry Moore’s involvement with a fraudulent mortgage transaction at 1564 Hillside Avenue were not false, they still awarded $60,000 in damages to Moore for interference with his employment at the University of Minnesota and potential future benefits, and for emotional distress.

On June 21, 2009, Hoff wrote a blog post about Moore, who had formerly been executive director of the Jordan Area Community Council and who had been fired from that position. Moore sued blogger Hoff for damages based on claims of defamation and interference with contract. The award was $35,000 for “loss of benefits” and $25,000 for emotional distress.

Godfread’s post-trial motion reads:

Defendant Hoff through his attorney hereby moves this Court pursuant to Role 50.02 of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure to enter judgement in favor of Defendant Hoff on all counts as a matter of law as the factual findings of the jury verdict do not support recovery.  In the alternative Defendant Hoff requests a new trial pursuant to Rule 59.01 of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure. 

Rule 59.01, the basis of the motion, states that a new trial may be granted if the verdict is not justified by the evidence, or is contrary to law.

Godfread said at the time of his motion that it appears that the jury based their decision abour Hoff’s “tortious interference” on a letter that was sent to the University of Minnesota. The letter was copied and printed on Hoff’s blog as a comment by Don Allen, but Allen claimed that Hoff wrote it. The letter called for Moore’s resigation.

Godfread said both the letter and Hoff’s statements on his blog “are essentially the same content.” That is, they both claim that Moore was involved in a high-profile fraudulent mortgage case.

Godfread, said that in Minnesota, tortious interference is not defined by statute. “It could be just about anything,” he said. “If we are going to allow free speech, we want people to tell the truth. By them doing so—if that get’s in the way of someone’s contract, it’s not tortious.”

The Minneapolis Mirror provides a copy of the Judge’s memorandum accompanying the order. In the memorandum, Reilly states that the court must accept a jury’s verdict if it is based on “reasonable evidentiary support.” According to Reilly, Hoff’s attorney failed in his argument to prove the jury’s decision was not supported by evidence.

On Tuesday, Godfread said he had no comment on Reilly’s ruling other than that Hoff plans to appeal.

Jill Clark, Moore’s lawyer, said in an email that though no one knows a judge will rule in advance, the decision was not surprising because Moore had already prevailed in the jury trial. “Given the law, it is fairly unusual for a District Judge to ‘undo’ a jury verdict. The arguments would need to be pretty compelling, and we did not think they were.” Further, Clark stated: “The jury heard all of the evidence; many of the commentators after the trial had not heard all of the evidence. The Defendant had to convince the District Court following the trial that the jury verdict was not supported by the evidence.  It appears the District Court found Hoff had not met that standard.”

See Developers are Crabgrass for commentary about the case, and Hoff’s blog for his reaction.

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