OF JUDGMENT: 06/23/2016
COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. ANTHONY ALAN MOZINGO TRIAL JUDGE
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: ALEXANDER IGNATIEV
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: WILLIAM L. DUCKER
IRVING, P.J., ISHEE AND GREENLEE, JJ.
Merlene Wall sued Jonathan Griffith for libel and slander,
and sought an injunction in the County Court of Lamar County.
After a trial on the facts, the county court ruled in favor
of Griffith and dismissed the case. Wall appealed the
decision to the Lamar County Circuit Court. Wall submitted a
brief-raising a new argument not previously asserted at
trial; Griffith did not respond to the appeal with a brief.
The circuit court held that Griffith's failure to answer
and file a brief was a confession of error. And so, the
circuit court reversed the decision of the county court and
ruled in favor of Wall. Griffith now appeals to this Court,
arguing that Wall failed to make out a case for error, and
therefore, he was entitled to a summary affirmance. We agree,
and accordingly, reverse and render the judgment of the
circuit court. The judgment of the county court is
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Wall was the municipal clerk of Lumberton. Griffith runs the
"Lumberton Informer"-a blog which reports on
politics and news in Lumberton. Griffith has often been
critical of Wall in his posts on the blog. Additionally, the
blog allows anyone to publish a comment following a blog
entry. These comments may be posted anonymously. In various
instances, anonymous comments-addressing Wall-posted to the
blog were vulgar and crass.
Wall sued Griffith in the county court for libel and slander,
and to enjoin his publication. On June 7, 2015, the county
court entered an injunction ordering Griffith, as the
publisher of the "Lumberton Informer, " to cease
and desist from writing defamatory material about Wall in his
publication. A trial was held on October 19, 2015, and a
judgment was entered in favor of Griffith. At trial, Wall and
Melissa Nightingale-a deputy city clerk-testified that they
believed that Griffith was responsible for the anonymous
comments posted to his blog. Griffith testified that the
comments posted on the blog were moderated by a third
party-and thus he was not responsible.
After the trial, the county court issued a written final
judgment ruling in Griffith's favor. First, the county
court found that Wall was a public figure, and so Griffith
possessed a First Amendment right to criticize Wall so long
as the comments were not false, and not made with malice.
Second, the county court found that there was no evidence of
defamatory comments-made by Griffith-in any of his blog posts
placed into evidence. Specifically, the county court found
that there was no proof that these comments were factually
false-most were just opinions. Likewise, the county court
found that there was no proof of malice. And third, the
county court found that there was insufficient proof in the
record to find that Griffith had control over the posting of
anonymous comments in his blog-and thus was not responsible
for their content. Therefore, the county court found it
unnecessary to determine if the anonymous comments were
Wall then appealed to the circuit court. Wall filed a brief,
arguing that federal law placed on Griffith an affirmative
obligation to screen offensive material. Griffith failed
to answer and did not file a brief with the circuit court.
The circuit court then ruled in favor of Wall-finding that
Griffith's failure to participate in the appeal amounted
to confession of error. Consequently, the circuit court
reversed the county court and found that Griffith did defame
Wall. Griffith now appeals.
On appeal, Griffith argues that the circuit court erred by
taking his failure to file a brief as a confession of error,
rather than summarily affirming the county court. Griffith
supports this assertion by ...