Dun Bradstreet, Inc v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc, 83-18

Citation105 S.Ct. 2939,86 L.Ed.2d 593,472 U.S. 749
Decision Date21 March 1984
Docket NumberNo. 83-18,83-18
PartiesDUN & BRADSTREET, INC., Petitioner v. GREENMOSS BUILDERS, INC
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Petitioner credit reporting agency sent a report to five subscribers indicating that respondent construction contractor had filed a voluntary petition for bankruptcy. The report was false and grossly misrepresented respondent's assets and liabilities. Thereafter, petitioner issued a corrective notice, but respondent was dissatisfied with this notice and brought a defamation action in Vermont state court, alleging that the false report had injured its reputation and seeking damages. After trial, the jury returned a verdict in respondent's favor and awarded both compensatory or presumed damages and punitive damages. But the trial court believed that Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789, controlled, and granted petitioner's motion for a new trial on the ground that the instructions to the jury permitted it to award damages on a lesser showing than "actual malice." The Vermont Supreme Court reversed, holding that Gertz was inapplicable to nonmedia defamation actions.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.

143 Vt. 66, 461 A.2d 414, affirmed.

Justice POWELL, joined by Justice REHNQUIST and Justice O'CONNOR, concluded that:

1. The fact that the jury instructions in question referred to "malice," "lack of good faith," and "actual malice," did not require the jury to find "actual malice," as respondent contends, where the instructions failed to define any of these terms. Consequently, the trial court correctly concluded that the instructions did not satisfy Gertz. Pp. 753-755.

2. Permitting recovery of presumed and punitive damages in defamation cases absent a showing of "actual malice" does not violate the First Amendment when the defamatory statements do not involve matters of public concern. Pp. 755-763.

(a) In light of the reduced constitutional value of speech on matters of purely private concern, as opposed to speech on matters of public concern, the state interest in compensating private individuals for injury to their reputation adequately supports awards of presumed and punitive damages—even absent a showing of "actual malice." Cf. Gertz. Pp. 755-761.

(b) Gertz, supra, does not apply to this case. Petitioner's credit report concerned no public issue but was speech solely in the individual interest of the speaker and its specific business audience. This particular interest warranted no special protection when it was wholly false and damaging to the victim's business reputation. Moreover, since the credit report was made available to only five subscribers, who, under the subscription agreement, could not disseminate it further, it cannot be said that the report involved any strong interest in the free flow of commercial information. And the speech here, like advertising, being solely motivated by a desire for profit, is hardy and unlikely to be deterred by incidental state regulation. In any event, the market provides a powerful incentive to a credit reporting agency to be accurate, since false reporting is of no use to creditors. Pp. 761-763.

The Chief Justice concluded that Gertz is inapplicable to this case, because the allegedly defamatory expression involved did not relate to a matter of public concern, and that no other reason was needed to dispose of the case. Pp. 763-764.

Justice White concluded that Gertz should not be applied to this case either because Gertz should be overruled or because the defamatory publication in question did not deal with a matter of public importance. P. 774.

Gordon Lee Garrett, Jr., Atlanta, Ga., for petitioner.

Thomas F. Heilmann, Burlington, Vt., for respondent.

Justice POWELL announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Justice REHNQUIST and Justice O'CONNOR joined.

In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789 (1974), we held that the First Amendment restricted the damages that a private individual could obtain from a publisher for a libel that involved a matter of public concern. More specifically, we held that in these circumstances the First Amendment prohibited awards of presumed and punitive damages for false and defamatory statements unless the plaintiff shows "actual malice," that is, knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. The question presented in this case is whether this rule of Gertz applies when the false and defamatory statements do not involve matters of public concern.

I

Petitioner Dun & Bradstreet, a credit reporting agency, provides subscribers with financial and related information about businesses. All the information is confidential; under the terms of the subscription agreement the subscribers may not reveal it to anyone else. On July 26, 1976, petitioner sent a report to five subscribers indicating that respondent, a construction contractor, had filed a voluntary petition for bankruptcy. This report was false and grossly misrepresented respondent's assets and liabilities. That same day, while discussing the possibility of future financing with its bank, respondent's president was told that the bank had received the defamatory report. He immediately called petitioner's regional office, explained the error, and asked for a correction. In addition, he requested the names of the firms that had received the false report in order to assure them that the company was solvent. Petitioner promised to look into the matter but refused to divulge the names of those who had received the report.

After determining that its report was indeed false, petitioner issued a corrective notice on or about August 3, 1976 to the five subscribers who had received the initial report. The notice stated that one of respondent's former employees, not respondent itself, had filed for bankruptcy and that respondent "continued in business as usual." Respondent told petitioner that it was dissatisfied with the notice, and it again asked for a list of subscribers who had seen the initial report. Again petitioner refused to divulge their names.

Respondent then brought this defamation action in Vermont state court. It alleged that the false report had injured its reputation and sought both compensatory and punitive damages. The trial established that the error in petitioner's report had been caused when one of its employees, a 17-year-old high school student paid to review Vermont bankruptcy pleadings, had inadvertently attributed to respondent a bankruptcy petition filed by one of respondent's former employees. Although petitioner's representative testified that it was routine practice to check the accuracy of such reports with the businesses themselves, it did not try to verify the information about respondent before reporting it.

After trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of respondent and awarded $50,000 in compensatory or presumed damages and $300,000 in punitive damages. Petitioner moved for a new trial. It argued that in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., supra, at 349, 94 S.Ct., at 3011, this Court had ruled broadly that "the States may not permit recovery of presumed or punitive damages, at least when liability is not based on a showing of knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth," and it argued that the judge's instructions in this case permitted the jury to award such damages on a lesser showing. The trial court indicated some doubt as to whether Gertz applied to "non-media cases," but granted a new trial "[b]ecause of . . . dissatisfaction with its charge and . . . conviction that the interests of justice require[d]" it. App. 26.

The Vermont Supreme Court reversed. 143 Vt. 66, 461 A.2d 414 (1983). Although recognizing that "in certain instances the distinction between media and nonmedia defend- ants may be difficult to draw," the court stated that "no such difficulty is presented with credit reporting agencies, which are in the business of selling financial information to a limited number of subscribers who have paid substantial fees for their services." Id., at 73, 461 A.2d, at 417. Relying on this distinguishing characteristic of credit reporting firms, the court concluded that such firms are not "the type of media worthy of First Amendment protection as contemplated by New York Times [Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964),] and its progeny." Id., at 73-74, 461 A.2d, at 417-418. It held that the balance between a private plaintiff's right to recover presumed and punitive damages without a showing of special fault and the First Amendment rights of "nonmedia" speakers "must be struck in favor of the private plaintiff defamed by a nonmedia defendant." Id., at 75, 461 A.2d, at 418. Accordingly, the court held "that as a matter of federal constitutional law, the media protections outlined in Gertz are inapplicable to nonmedia defamation actions." Ibid.

Recognizing disagreement among the lower courts about when the protections of Gertz apply,1 we granted certiorari. 464 U.S. 959, 104 S.Ct. 389, 78 L.Ed.2d 334 (1983). We now affirm, although for reasons different from those relied upon by the Vermont Supreme Court.

II

As an initial matter, respondent contends that we need not determine whether Gertz applies in this case because the instructions, taken as a whole, required the jury to find "actual malice" before awarding presumed or punitive damages.2 The trial court instructed the jury that because the report was libelous per se, respondent was not required "to prove actual damages . . . since damage and loss [are] conclusively presumed." App. 17; accord, id., at 19. It also instructed the jury that it could award punitive damages only if it found "actual malice." Id., at 20. Its only other relevant instruction was that liability could not be established unless respondent showed "malice or lack of good faith on the...

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