(CN) - A librarian who lost her job and her book deal after she published a supposedly fictionalized tell-all was improperly awarded damages, a Maryland appeals court ruled.
Sally Stern developed her manuscript while working at the library in Ludington, Mich., and assigned the rights to Publish America in early 2008. When the publisher told Stern that she would need releases for writing about any real-life individuals, Stern assured it that she had fictionalized her work to avoid that requirement.
The manuscript was eventually published as "The Library Diaries," under the pen name Ann Miketa.
"After working at a public library in a small, rural Midwestern town (which I will refer to as Denialville, Michigan, throughout this book) for fifteen years, I have encountered strains and variations of crazy I didn't know existed in such significant portions of our population," Stern wrote in the book's introduction.
Not long after publication, the Mason County District Library fired Stern.
The termination letter, as reported by WorldNetDaily (WND), read: "The cover of your book includes a picture of the Ludington Library. Each chapter is devoted to a specific library patron or patrons. Your book portrays these people in a very unflattering manner. You describe individual patrons as mentally ill, mentally incompetent, unintelligent, and unattractive. You label several as 'perverts.' While you stop short of naming the individuals you targeted in your book, your detailed descriptions of their unique characteristics and mannerisms make them easily identifiable in our small community."
Facing threat of defamation lawsuits, Publish America canceled printing of the book, informing Stern: "Based upon public statements that you have made since your book was placed on the market, we are no longer able to continue selling your book. The contract, however, including the indemnification clause, will remain in force. If you find another publisher interested in selling your book, let us know."
Stern instead filed suit. The complaint in Frederick County, Md., alleged that Publish America had ceased publication of her "diary" without notice and without transferring the rights to her.
She emphasized that "the agreement permits [Publish America] to cease manufacture of ['The Library Diaries'] only upon the exercise of its judgment that public demand for the work would no longer be sufficient to warrant publication," and that Publish America ceased publication without making such a finding, and notwithstanding the actual continued market demand for the book."
Publish America countered in a motion for judgment that "the discontinuation [of publication] was based on paragraph 24" of the agreement, i.e., lack of demand.
It attributed the withheld rights to Stern's breach of paragraph 14 of the agreement, in which it said the failure to fictionalize would excuse any breach by Publish America.
After a three-day trial in 2010, the court granted Stern judgment "on the issue of liability" for Publish America's failure to "return" the publishing rights.
A jury determined that Stern deserved $10,880 in damages for the time from contract termination until the rights were returned.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed the circuit court's judgment last week, however, after finding that the question of liability should have gone to the jury.
Publish America presented ample evidence "to have the jury decide whether certain characters were reasonably identifiable individuals within the Ludington community," Judge James Kenney III wrote for a three-judge panel.
"Specifically, Stern testified that the Ludington library patrons included a man who brought empty gallon jugs to the library to fill with water, a girl who carried a stuffed purple dinosaur, a man who wore three hats at once, and a woman from Norway who had an altercation with this three-hatted man and was arrested as a result," Kenney added. "'The Library Diaries' includes characters with these distinct traits."
According to the opinion, Dickson told one media outlet that "the characterizations in The Library Diaries were very recognizable as people within their community." The circuit court incorrectly denied Publish America's demand to introduce Dickson's testimony as evidence, as it "would have been relevant to help the jury decide whether readers could reasonably understand that the fictional characters were actually portrayals of real and identifiable people living in the Ludington community.
"The circuit court, by its finding that there was not enough evidence to support Publish America's position that Stern failed to fictionalize 'The Library Diaries,' effectively short-circuited Publish America's defense that any breach of the Agreement was excused by Stern's own material breach," the opinion concluded.
Kenney also found that the circuit court correctly denied Stern's motion for costs that included gas, postage, photocopies, and meals at Starbucks and McDonald's.
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