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Harvey-Jones v. Coronel

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

November 1, 2018

RAYCHEL HARVEY-JONES
v.
SUSAN CORONEL

          Circuit Court for Baltimore County Case No. 03-C-16-008542

          Graeff, Kehoe, Beachley, JJ. [*]

          OPINION

          BEACHLEY, J.

         In August 2016, Susan Coronel, appellee, filed a claim in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County against appellant Raychel Harvey-Jones, alleging defamation per se. Because Ms. Harvey-Jones failed to timely answer, the court, upon Ms. Coronel's request, issued an Order of Default. Following Ms. Harvey-Jones's unsuccessful motions to stay and vacate the Order of Default, the court scheduled a hearing to determine damages. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court awarded Ms. Coronel $10, 000 in compensatory damages and $200, 000 in punitive damages. Ms. Harvey-Jones timely appealed and presents three questions for our review:

1. Did the Circuit Court err in awarding $10, 000 in compensatory damages?
2. Did the Circuit Court err in awarding $200, 000 in punitive damages where it was grossly excessive and violated due process?
3. Did the Circuit Court err in awarding an excessive monetary judgment where it was based on unverified admissions by default?

         We discern no error, and affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         According to the testimony at the hearing on damages, Ms. Coronel dated a man named Michael Scott "off and on from 2012 to 2015." The conclusion of that relationship coincided with Ms. Coronel seeking $110, 000 from Mr. Scott in unrelated litigation in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. In late 2015, Mr. Scott met and subsequently began dating Ms. Harvey-Jones.

         At some point thereafter, someone began to harass Mr. Scott by anonymously sending him e-mails and text messages. Believing the culprit was Ms. Coronel, Mr. Scott hired Steve Brown, a private investigator. In late February 2016, Ms. Harvey-Jones sent Mr. Scott a text message stating that Ms. Coronel was the person who had been harassing him, and that Ms. Coronel had also sent over 300 e-mails to the local NBC news affiliate, resulting in her owing NBC $17, 000 in damages. Ms. Harvey-Jones's text message also contained a statement of charges which purported to show that Ms. Coronel had been charged with harassment as a course of conduct, electronic mail harassment, and telephone misuse. Believing the text message to be true, Mr. Scott forwarded it to his private investigator. Mr. Brown then met with Baltimore County Police Detective Larry Rogers, the officer who purportedly authored the charging document, to verify the contents of the text message.

         When Detective Rogers saw the charging document, he suspected it to be counterfeit. He noted that the charging language, dates, and some of the applicable criminal codes were missing, and he also knew that he had never charged Ms. Coronel with harassment. Detective Rogers reviewed the tracking number from the charging document and determined that the tracking number and harassment charges matched a statement of charges he had filed in 2015 against Ms. Harvey-Jones. To be certain, Detective Rogers then searched Ms. Coronel's criminal record, and verified that she had never been charged with harassment.

         Near the end of March 2016, Mr. Brown informed Mr. Scott that Ms. Harvey-Jones's text was inaccurate, that the charging document was fake, and that Ms. Coronel had neither harassed NBC with 300 e-mails, nor did she ever owe NBC $17, 000 in damages.

         Detective Rogers arrested Ms. Harvey-Jones in July 2016, and charged her with forgery of a public document. A local news website, Eye on Annapolis, posted a story about Ms. Harvey-Jones's arrest. In the comments section of the article, a person named "Jane Shims" claimed that "someone [was] lying or misrepresenting" what had transpired and that Ms. Coronel was "a bitter ex." Detective Rogers traced the IP address for Jane Shims, as well as other "people" who had commented on the article. He determined that the IP addresses for Jane Shims and several other commenters all belonged to a computer in Ms. Harvey-Jones's home.

         In August 2016, Ms. Coronel filed a complaint against Ms. Harvey-Jones, alleging defamation per se. The complaint alleged that Ms. Harvey-Jones sent Mr. Scott a text message which contained a counterfeit charging document, as well as a false story that Ms. Coronel had sent NBC 300 e-mails and consequently owed $17, 000 in damages. When Ms. Harvey-Jones failed to timely respond to the complaint, Ms. Coronel requested an Order of Default, which the court entered on October 7, 2016. Ms. Harvey-Jones subsequently filed an untimely motion to vacate, as well as a motion for reconsideration. The court denied both motions. Ms. Coronel then requested a hearing to determine damages.

         At the hearing on damages, the circuit court received testimony from Ms. Coronel and Detective Rogers, as well as excerpts from Mr. Scott's deposition. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court awarded Ms. Coronel $10, 000 in compensatory damages and $200, 000 in punitive damages. As stated above, Ms. Harvey-Jones timely appealed.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Compensatory Damages

         "When an action has been tried without a jury, we 'review the trial court's decision on both the law and the evidence, upholding factual findings unless clearly erroneous, but subjecting its legal conclusions to de novo review.'" Thomas v. Capital Med. Mgmt. Assocs., LLC, 189 Md.App. 439, 453 (2009) (quoting Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Regency Furniture, Inc., 183 Md.App. 710, 722 (2009)).

         Ms. Harvey-Jones contends that the circuit court erred by awarding $10, 000 in compensatory damages because the "evidence was speculative." Essentially, Ms. Harvey-Jones argues that the circuit court was required to base its award of compensatory damages on evidence of actual harm. However, her position is contrary to Maryland law, which allows for the presumption of damages when a plaintiff establishes that a statement was defamatory per se and made with actual malice:

[W]hen a plaintiff establishes that a statement was defamatory per se and, by clear and convincing evidence, demonstrates that it was made with actual malice, a "presumption of harm to reputation . . . arises from the publication of words actionable per se. A trier of fact is not constitutionally barred from awarding damages based on that presumption in [an actual] malice case." Hanlon v. Davis, 76 Md.App. 339, 356, 545 A.2d 72 (1988) (citation omitted). In other words, if the statement is defamatory per se, damages are presumed when a plaintiff can demonstrate actual malice, by clear and convincing evidence, even in the absence of proof of harm.

Samuels v. Tschechtelin, 135 Md.App. 483, 549-50 (2000).

         We initially note that Ms. Harvey-Jones apparently concedes that her defamatory statements were made with actual malice. Instead, Ms. Harvey-Jones asserts that there was insufficient evidence to "presume the damage to justify the compensation awarded here."

         Although Ms. Coronel requested $50, 000 in compensatory damages, the circuit court determined that $10, 000 was the appropriate award. In our view, the court did not err. In making this determination, the court stated that:

[T]here isn't any showing of lost income so I find it difficult to presume $50, 000 worth of damage. So the Court will award $10, 000 in compensatory damages because I think that there probably is good reason to think, more likely than not, that [Ms. Coronel] diverted time from her business to meet with the detective and her lawyer, to prepare for this lawsuit and I have little doubt that she was upset by this turn of events, with having this information on the internet ...

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