CHICAGO (CN) – A federal judge in Chicago ruled Tuesday that a bride can sue her caterer for defamation after the caterer posted videos online calling her a con artist and a thief after she refused to pay extra charges.
In 2015, Reginald and Patricia Fields hired Nikita Jackson of Texas-based Absolutely Edible Cakes to cater their wedding, according to court records.
The couple claims Jackson tried to beef up their catering bill by charging them for extra services. When they refused to pay the additional $7,000, Jackson allegedly turned to social media to seek revenge by accusing them of criminal acts.
Court records show that Jackson uploaded videos on YouTube captioned, “Patricia Fields is a con artist. She stole from me by writing checks totalling [sic] $4500,” and “Bitch Patricia Fields [d]idn’t [h]ave my money. BRIDE stole from me. $4500 in nsf checks.”
Patricia Fields alleges her former employer then let her go, supposedly due to lack of work, but she believes she lost her consulting job over Jackson’s defamatory social media campaign.
“According to the Fields…an upper-level employee told Patricia she was discharged not because of a lack of work, but instead because Jackson’s internet posts about the Fields’ failure to pay for her catering services,” U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee wrote in a 13-page ruling issued Tuesday.
Police arrested Fields in February 2016 and charged her with theft of services over her failure to pay Jackson.
“The charges were dismissed with prejudice on July 5, 2016. In the meantime, ABC 7 News published news reports of Patricia’s arrest,” the opinion states.
Judge Lee rejected Jackson’s argument that Fields failed to present sufficient evidence that her posts were damaging.
“On its face, Jackson’s statement that ‘Patricia … stole from me’ imputes the commission of a crime – namely, theft,” Lee wrote. “Such statements are the archetype of defamation per se.”
Jackson argued that her internet posts about Fields are protected by qualified privilege because they are of interest of public concern.
Judge Lee agreed, writing that “Jackson’s statements accusing Patricia of committing crimes by stealing from her and writing bad checks fall squarely within this category.”
However, the judge found that qualified privilege does not entitle Jackson to summary judgment on the couple’s defamation claims.
“The Fields have presented a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether or not Jackson abused her qualified privilege,” Lee wrote. “In particular, there is a genuine dispute as to whether Jackson published her statements to people who were not reasonably believed to be necessary recipients of the statements, given that Jackson published her statements on the internet, where they are broadly accessible to the general public.”
Despite the criminal charges being dropped, and the possibility that Jackson may have abused qualified privilege, Fields will have to convince a jury that Jackson set out to tarnish her reputation by making false statements about her online.
Lee kept Fields’ defamation claims intact, but he dismissed her claims of infliction of emotional distress.
“Although these statements may have been offensive or distressing to the Fields, such defamatory statements are not so extreme and outrageous as to sustain a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress,” he wrote. “The Fields have offered no case law or arguments to the contrary.”