A Seattle landlord is suing the city for defamation for referring to him as a slumlord and linking his name to anti-slumlord legislation. According to reports, the landlord is considering expanding the lawsuit to include an individual councilmember.
The case arose amid a slew of rental regulations debated recently in Seattle, mainly designed to cap rents. A pro-tenant councilmember championed legislation that would prohibit rent increases on buildings with unresolved code violations.
In the course of this advocacy, the councilmember referred to the landlord individually, including using the landlord’s name when defending the bill, publishing the name on public portions of the councilmember’s website, and using the name in interviews with the press. Words like “slumlord” associated with the individual landlord continue to appear on the lawmaker’s website.
After receiving numerous code violations, the landlord claimed that he was previously unaware of the condition of the rental property, and voluntarily agreed to a one-month rent abatement for tenants. However, the councilmember called the efforts “lackluster” and referred to the condition of the property as “hazardous to human life.” The landlord was used as an example in numerous arguments, including an accusation that he raised rent in order to drive out existing tenants and avoid paying relocation assistance.
Whether or not these accusations are true likely will be at the center of the defamation dispute. However, it may be more complicated than deciding what, precisely, defines a slumlord. The court may need to evaluate whether the statements were presented as fact, not opinions, and whether the typical person listening to or reading the statements of lawmakers might believe those statements to be true.
In addition, the landlord will need to show that damage occurred to his reputation in a tangible way, such as lost business opportunities.
This is not the first case of its kind. Six years ago, a Connecticut landlord was dealt a blow when a jury concurred that he was a “notorious slumlord” and therefore not entitled to any damages for defamation. However, that landlord also had been called an arsonist, a claim he was able to disprove. Still, the jury awarded only $1 in damages because that statement did not appear to cause injury to the landlord’s business.
In another case, a landlord sued a tenant for defamation after the tenant posted a series of negative and provocative comments online and in social media, including a claim that the landlord was a “sociopath” and that he suffered from mental illness. In that case, the landlord agreed to provide evidence to disprove those allegations.
While defamation is difficult to prove, the damage awards in such cases can be significant. In this case, the landlord is requesting a $25 million dollar award, along with public retraction of the statements.
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Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.