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Quinlan v. Sugar-Gold

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

April 5, 2017

MICKEY McGUINNESS QUINLAN, MACKEY SUGAR QUINLAN AND CHARLES BRIAN SUGAR Plaintiff- 2nd Appellant
v.
MELISSA SUGAR-GOLD Defendant-1st Appellant

         Appealed from the First Judicial District Court for the Parish of Caddo, Louisiana Lower Court Case No. 574, 162, Honorable Craig O. Marcotte, Judge.

          THE PESNELL LAW FIRM, By: Billy R. Pesnell, Counsel for 1st Appellant.

          McMICHAEL, MEDLIN, D'ANNA, WEDGEWORTH & LAFARGUE, LLC, By: James C. McMichael, Jr. Anna M. Brown Priestley, Counsel for 2nd Appellant.

          Before BROWN, WILLIAMS, and PITMAN, JJ.

          WILLIAMS, J.

         The plaintiffs, Mickey McGuinness Quinlan, Mackey Sugar Quinlan and Charles Brian Sugar, appeal the district court's ruling which granted a special motion to strike filed by the defendant, Melissa Sugar Gold. The defendant has appealed the district court's denial of attorney fees and costs. For the following reasons, we affirm in part, reverse in part and remand with instructions.

         FACTS

         The parties are the members of the same family. The plaintiff, Charles Sugar, is the biological son of Alan Sugar ("Alan Sugar");[1] the defendant, Melissa Sugar Gold, is Alan's adopted daughter.[2] The plaintiff, Mackey Quinlan, is the niece of Charles and Melissa; Mickey Quinlan is Mackey Quinlan's husband.

         On January 17, 2013, the defendant authored an article entitled "Elder Abuse and Betrayal of Trust" ("the Elder Abuse article"). The article was published on fictiontoolbox.blogspot.com. In the Elder Abuse article, the defendant referenced another article that had been published on sugaroilcompany.blogspot.com, and stated, "I don't know who authored it. It's not hard to deduce that someone in my family (one of us who love[s] my dad and are [sic] not just waiting for him to die so we can swoop in for our inheritance), must have penned it." Additionally, in the Elder Abuse article, the defendant commended the author of another article that had been published on sugaroilcompany.blogspot.com, by stating, "[T]o whomever wrote it, [g]ood for you. Those greedy, phony vultures needed to be exposed." The remainder of the "Elder Abuse" article provided:

WTF[3] happens to families when they think they might inherit some money? I've always heard stories about it, but never believed I would witness such greed directed at my own father and mother.
***
The past two months have been chock-full of family illnesses, hospitalizations and most disturbingly, a case of what my immediate family and I believe to be more than just plain ole greed, something more sinister. Indeed, [e]lder abuse. Sadly, my father, who is in his mid-eighties and currently in the hospital and very ill, is the intended victim.
***
Mickey, Mackey, Chucky: "Here [sign] this paper. It's just a simple for[m] for your taxes." You'll be dead by the time your wife realized we just had you sign over your entire estate and wealth to us. Oops. Alan Sugar didn't build that empire by being an idiot. He figured it out, and he ain't dead. I don't envy the wrath that awaits anyone, devious enough to trick an old man into signing away the rights to his company, home and livelihood. If the courts don't get you - God sure will.
***

         Thereafter, in the article, the defendant proceeded to define the term "elder abuse"[4] and stated, "The disturbing part of that definition and of what Chuck Sugar, Dr. Mackey Sugar Quinlan and Mickey Quinlan did to my father is 'Trust.' Betrayal of an elder man's trust, is vile." Further, the defendant posed the following question, "Do any of you have any experience with elder abuse?, " and proceeded to recount a story she had been told by an unnamed man whose father had allegedly been the victim of elder abuse.

         On January 21, 2014, the plaintiffs filed a petition for injunctive relief and for damages, alleging that the defendant "had written and published false and defamatory statements" about them in the Elder Abuse article and two similar articles that had been published on two different websites, sugaroilcompany.blogspot.com and sugarfamilysecrets.blogspot.com. The plaintiffs sought to recover damages for defamation and/or intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiffs also sought an injunction and a court order requiring the defendant to remove the alleged defamatory publications from the Internet.

         On March 7, 2014, the plaintiffs filed an amended petition, which included the following specific allegations:

***
3. On January 17, 2013, an article entitled "Elder Abuse and Betrayal of Trust" was published by Defendant on fictiontoolbox.blogspot.com. This article alleges that Defendant's father, Alan Sugar (hereinafter "Alan") is the victim of elder abuse at the hands of all three Petitioners.
***
The article continued to allege that the Petitioners preyed on Alan to gain control of his company and compared their alleged actions to those of a con artist.
4. The internet domain
sugaroilcompany.blogspot.com leads to a website titled "Sugar Family Saga, Sugar Oil Co. & The Sugar Family: Secrets, Lies & Betrayals Revealed." This entire website appears to have been created for the sole purpose of defaming Petitioners.
5. On or about January 20, 2013, an article titled "How Mickey Quinlan Took Control of Sugar Oil Company: How Was Alan Sugar Coerced Into Signing Away Everything He Owned" was published by Defendant on sugaroilcompany.blogspot.com. This article again alleges that the Petitioners participated in elder abuse towards Alan Sugar, stating "[a]buse of wealthy elderly parents by their greedy adult children and other relatives is as common as sin" and linking to an article about the alleged elder abuse of Brooke Astor. The article continues to allege that Petitioners were untrustworthy, lied to Alan to coerce him into doing something he did not want to do, and led a "crusade to take all of Alan's money and property." The article concludes with a promise to reveal other stories of "betrayals of family" on the website.
6. The internet domain sugarfamilysecrets.blogspot.com leads to a website titled "Sugar & Shit: Unbelievable Saga of Christian Counselor Son and Ungrateful Grandchildren Taking Money from Elder Relative." Again, this entire website appears to have been created for the sole purpose of defaming Petitioners. There are links on the website to pages titled "Sugar Sham, " "Chuck Sugar, " "Elder Abuse, " and "Doctors w/ Morals."
7. On or about July 31, 2013, an article titled "The unSugar Family-The Greedy Bunch" was posted on sugarfamilysecrets.blogspot.com. The first sentence reads: "Thank you Greedy Bunch: Chuck Sugar, Dr. Mackey Sugar Quinlan, Dr. Scott Sugar, Mickey Quinlan (new title president of Sugar Oil)." This article alleges that Petitioner Charles Sugar is a hypocrite, a drug addict, and a homosexual. These allegations are particularly injurious to Charles Sugar because he makes his living as a Licensed Professional Counselor by practicing "Christian Counseling, " wherein he counsels patients from a Christian world-view.
8. On the Sugar & Shit website, the "About" page contains three paragraphs that allege Petitioner Charles Sugar is a homosexual thief and imply [sic] that Petitioner Mackey Sugar Quinlan is an immoral, incompetent physician.
***

         On May 7, 2014, the defendant filed peremptory exceptions of no cause of action and prescription. In the pleadings, the defendant admitted that she had authored and published the Elder Abuse article on fictiontoolbox.blogspot.com. However, she "categorically den[ied]" writing and/or publishing the articles on sugaroilcompany.blogspot.com and sugarfamilysecrets.blogspot.com.

         The defendant also filed a special motion to strike the plaintiffs' petition, pursuant to La. C.C.P. art. 971. She argued as follows: she published the Elder Abuse article on her blog "in the exercise of her right to free speech in connection with an issue of public interest, namely elder abuse"; in the article, she expressly invited the public to comment and offer their opinions regarding the issue of elder abuse; the statements made in the article were her own personal opinions and are protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; and the defendants failed to allege fault (actual malice or negligence) sufficient to create a triable issue. The defendant also requested an award of reasonable attorney fees and costs.

         Further, in support of the motion to strike, the defendant submitted an affidavit, in which she attested as follows:

She is the author of the article entitled "Elder Abuse and Betrayal of Trust" which was published on fictiontoolbox.blogspot.com;
She did not author or publish the articles on sugarfamilysecrets.blogspot.com and sugaroilcompany.blogspot.com and she has no ...

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