Defamation Law: Can You Be Kicked Out Of Your Apartment For Slandering The Landlord?

Victor Fiorillo’s article on Phillymag.com makes Philadelphia’s Landlord Tenant Court sound like the dreaded “Fourth Floor” in Pawnee’s City Hall – dank, drab and filled with agitated litigants lulled into a drone-like state thanks to the monotony of bureaucracy. But as Fiorillo explained, an unusual case recently perked the place up. Matthew and Michael Pestronk – two developer brothers who were publicly known, thanks to a “union-busting” campaign they launched earlier in the year – were suing one of their tenants, Marissa Damato, for defamation. While the court regularly heard cases involving rent, sub-par living conditions and lease disagreements, slander and libel was rarely on the docket.

In The Beginning: The Road To A Landlord Tenant Defamation Lawsuit

Despite acknowledging, presumably via signing the lease, that their new building – built by the Pestronks’ company, Post Brothers – was still under construction, Marissa Damato, her husband and kids moved into the Rittenhouse Hill apartment in West Mouth Airy, Pennsylvania. From the sounds of it, Damato and her family were not thrilled with their location. According to them, the elevators in their building constantly malfunctioned and piles of dirt made navigating the grounds difficult and dangerous (not to mention the open wires). Rodents running rampant also infuriated the new family, and presumably presented certain health risks.

Marissa, a concerned mom, decided to take her complaints to the Fifth Estate. She called Fiorillo in an attempt to expose the less than pristine conditions at Rittenhouse; Damato referred to her landlords, the Pestronk brothers, as “slumlords.” From the sounds of it, Fiorillo didn’t jump right on the story; but then the Pestronk brothers started to grouse about Damato loitering in the hallways and accosting prospective renters with tales of the buildings woes; they also believed she took her gripes online in the form of uncomplimentary, anonymous Internet epistles.

A lawsuit landed on Damato’s doorstep and Fiorillo decided to explore the case a little closer.

The Defamation Lawsuit: “Get Out Of Our Digs For Talking Trash!”

Presumably the Post Brothers were done with Damato’s demands and disses. Perhaps emboldened by their summer success fighting what they characterized as “bully unions,” Matt and Mike filed a lawsuit against Marissa and her family. In a creative legal maneuver, the brother developers decided to file a defamation lawsuit. Their ultimate goal was to evict Damato for “interfering with the landlord’s business.”

In their lawsuit, the Post Brothers supposedly detailed their displeasure with Damato’s behavior and her constant complaints about their building. They alleged that even though the online diatribes were penned anonymously, they were “just obviously her.”

So there the two parties found themselves, in the dank Landlord Tenant court – about to begin a defamation battle.

Speculation: Who Will Win This Landlord Tenant Defamation Case?

Without reading the actual filing, it’s impossible to say who will win this interesting defamation lawsuit; and unfortunately, I’ve not been able to get my hands on it. Nevertheless, based on the information gathered in Fiorillo’s article, two questions emerge that will most likely be central to the case.

Did The Damato’s Agree To The Conditions?

If Marissa and her family did sign a legal contract which outlined the types of disturbances they would encounter by living in the building while still under construction, the Post Brothers will probably have a pretty good shot at winning this case.

Was It Really Marissa Who Was Bad-Mouthing The Brothers Online?

It sounds like the Post Brothers are equally upset with Damato’s possible online grousing as they are with her alleged disparaging hallway warnings to prospective leasers. She, however, says it isn’t her doing the Internet griping. As such, the brothers will most likely have to get a subpoena to unearth the name of the anonymous malcontent. If they succeed in obtaining the subpoena, and the person isn’t her, there goes half their case. If it is her, she may be out of luck – but only if her online tirades contained provably false statements of fact. If the statements in question are merely Marissa’s opinions about the building and factual accounting, she most likely won’t be held liable for exercising her right to free speech.

Kelly / Warner will be keeping an eye on this defamation lawsuit – after all, it’s not every day that a slander or libel case lands in landlord tenant court. To keep up with other Internet and defamation law news, sign up for our newsletter. If you need to speak with a defamation attorney about a matter, get in touch!

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