Sunday, August 19, 2007

Just my opinion...

I don't know Zachary Chester, but I am heartened to hear that he's not planning to apologize for asking City Council for information on the development projects that Dennis Gonzalez, assistant business administrator, has been involved with, even after Gonzalez sent him a "cease and desist" letter from his home address.

This story has been covered in both city papers, as well as several of the blogs, so I won't rehash the details. If you missed it, check out my Trenton links on the lower right of this page.

I started my career as a newspaper reporter, and I have always been fascinated by media law, even though I have since changed gears. I still do some writing periodically, so I keep a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual around; I'm more inclined to reference it for the finer details of grammar, but every now and then when I hear about a person threatening to sue another person for defamation, I wind up perusing the legal part of the book, too.

Gonzalez hasn't yet taken any official legal action against Zachary Chester, and while I don't know Dennis Gonzalez either, I don't think he will, because, ultimately, Gonzalez does not have a case. However, the detail that nags at me is that Gonzalez sent the "cease and desist" letter from his home address.

The fact that the "cease and desist" came from the Gonzalez residence raises a lot of questions for me; it makes me wonder what kind of legal role -- if any -- the city will take in this. Is Gonzalez alleging that private citizen Zachary Chester defamed private citizen Dennis Gonzalez? A weak allegation, for sure. But it's definitely worth noting: a public official needs to prove malice (which can be difficult) in a defamation lawsuit; a private citizen must show that the defendant was negligent (which is less difficult) in order to collect damages.

It's troubling, isn't it?

Zachary Chester asked for information about Gonzalez's work projects, so I think -- and it's just my opinion -- that Gonzalez won't be able to sue as plain ol' Denny G, because he is a high-ranking member of the city's administration, even when he's home eating dinner.

But we live in a lawsuit-happy world, and Gonzalez's ultimatum stated that Zac must apologize by August 31, so who knows how this will go.

I'm no longer a journalist, and I'm certainly not a lawyer, but for what it's worth, my opinion (and I'm probably not alone) is if any individual -- regardless of position and line of work -- is doing a good job, s/he can easily answer questions about his/her job performance and record. We all go to work every day and have to answer similar questions when our bosses and/or clients ask them. Those who are in over their heads, or sleeping on the job, or just kind of not really engaging in the tasks set out in their job descriptions, are likely to get pretty defensive.

Twice -- in two different work environments -- I have seen people threaten to sue for libel or slander after they've been questioned about their job performances. Instead of saying, "Hey, I took a gamble here, and it didn't work out," or "You know, I'm really embarrassed to admit this, but I was asleep on the job," both employees got irate and threatened to sue...for slander. Both times, those employees were fired and no suits were filed. I suppose that no suits were filed because as greasy as lawyers can be, none is stupid enough to take on a frivolous libel/slander case, when really, those two super-sensitive employees just didn't want people analyzing their work. Two instances over a 10-year span is hardly a barometer for how defamation suits, or threats of them, will go in the universe, or even here in Trenton. But there is plenty of good information on the pages of my AP Stylebook and Libel Manual which predict that Gonzalez won't get too far with his defamation suit:
  • Everyone has the right to comment on matters of public interest and concern, provided they do so fairly and with an honest purpose. Such comments or criticism are not libelous, however severe in their terms, unless they are written maliciously.
  • Courts have held that public officials (an elected/appointed person in the political arena) and public figures (celebrities, athletes, authors, etc.) must prove actual malice when suing for libel or slander.
  • The statements alleged to be defamatory must also be false statements of facts. That which is name-calling or hyperbole cannot be proven true or false, and cannot be the subject of a libel or slander claim. Zac simply asked for more information about Gonzalez's projects, though in doing so, people may surmise that Gonzalez is or was incompetent. Incompetence seems to be a matter of opinion, and not a fact.
In my opinion, Trenton home owners get shoddy services -- and treatment -- for the amount we're paying in taxes. What's happening with Dennis Gonzalez is a shining example of the problems in this city: when we ask questions, why don't we get answers? When we keep asking, why are we met with hostility? When we keep asking, how on earth can public officials threaten to sue us? This is OUR city. We DESERVE answers.

Off-topic note:
I added pictures to my last two posts, if you want to scroll down and take a peek.


Old Mill Hill said...

A very clear analysis of the situation, Chrissy. Well thought out and researched. For a lay person (that is, a non-lawyer) you've got a firm grasp of the legalities.

Interestingly, Mr. Gonzalez who is a lawyer by training (and in fact first came to the city to work for the law department), should have realized that his threatened lawsuit against Mr. Chester has no merit.

Further, one might thinkg Mr. Gonzalez would recognize that as a public official the burden of proof in a libel or slander suit is, as you pointed out, much higher.

Finally, the act of sending the letter on non-city letterhead from home does seem to imply that Mr. Gonzalez was hoping, incorrectly, to separate his status as Joe Citizen from his occupation as an appointed official of the City of Trenton.

While nothing can prevent Dennis from initiating a suit against Zac, there is every reason to believe that the case would be tossed out of court for lack of merit.

Mr. Clean said...

I was aware that DG was trained as a lawyer. His basis for flinging this hot, steamy turd of a "legal action" perhaps shows why he's not working as an actual attorney (as far as I'm aware).

Sources close to me say the only lawyer-ish skill he uses on a regular basis is circumlocution.

Could this guy be any more paranoid?