Circuit Court for Baltimore County Case No. 03-C-16-008542
Graeff, Kehoe, Beachley, JJ. [*]
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
2. Did the Circuit Court err in awarding $200, 000 in
punitive damages where it was grossly excessive and violated
3. Did the Circuit Court err in awarding an excessive
monetary judgment where it was based on unverified admissions
discern no error, and affirm.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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)).
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
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."
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