(CN) – A law firm cannot sue its former client, Trump Virginia Acquisitions, for defamation after the company allegedly failed to pay its bills, and then publicly justified the non-payment by saying that the firm’s work was “shoddy.”
In September 2011, Cook, Heyward, Lee, Hopper & Feehan, P.C., a Virginia law firm, was retained by Trump Virginia Acquisitions. The law firm sent Trump Acquisitions an initial 30-day invoice detailing the fees and costs for its services for a total of $94,511.
However, Trump Acquisitions did not pay the invoice for a month, so Cook Heyward sent a 60-day invoice and inquired after the money.
At that time, Eric Trump allegedly told Cook Heyward that “although the Trump Entities had no problem with the quality of the firm’s work, the bills were ‘too high’ and that [Cook Heyward] should reduce its fees and/or agreed to cap its fees while continuing the representation.”
Eric Trump suggested the Cook Heyward reduce its fees by 70 percent, the firm claimed.
Cook Heyward refused and told Trump Acquisitions that it intended to withdraw as counsel. An employee at Trump Acquisitions’ General Counsel’s office allegedly told the firm that it “should expect very bad publicity” if it withdrew.
In December 2011, Trump Acquisitions’ General Counsel, Jason Greenblatt, told Virginia Lawyers’ Weekly that Cook Heyward’s work was “shoddy,” and that “we were very, very disappointed over their work quality and their billing practices… We needed to redo their work multiple times in-house.”
Cook Heyward sued Greenblatt for defamation, claiming that “Greenblatt was aware that the Trump Entities had not needed to and did not ‘redo plaintiff’s work multiple times.'”
However, U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson said that “in general, statements of unsatisfactory job performance do not rise to the level of defamation.”
“Thus, even if such statements ‘can be verified as true or false, a reasonable interpretation of the statements within the commercial context in which they are offered indicates that they are merely expressions of opinion of an upset consumer,” the judge continued, quoting precedent.
Hudson found that “despite plaintiff’s attempt to argue that the manifestation of defendants’ disappointment can be objectively verified, the concept of being disappointed is a relative one, solely contingent on the speaker’s internal viewpoint.”
“The alleged necessity of redoing plaintiffs’ work essentially depended on defendants’ on evaluation and assessment. As such, the statement is a protected expression of opinion and not actionable for the purposes of plaintiff’s defamation claim,” the court concluded.
Cook Heyward’s claim for breach of contract remains pending before the court.