A Landlord/Tenant Defamation Case Highlights the Risks of Twitter

On January 20, Cook County, Illinois Circuit Court Judge Diane Larsen threw out a defamation suit that had been brought by a realty-management company against a Chicago renter. The suit was based on comments that the renter had posted on Twitter. (As readers likely know, Twitter is a social-networking service that allows its users to broadcast -- to those who opt to become their "followers" -- messages of 140 characters or fewer, which are called "tweets.")

Judge Larsen's terse ruling simply stated that "the court finds the tweet nonactionable as a matter of law." She reportedly added at a hearing in the case that the tweet was "really too vague" and "lacks any context."

The plaintiff was Horizon Group Management LLC. A representative of the company told the Chicago Sun-Times, "We're a sue first, ask questions later kind of an organization." (He later asked that the statement be disregarded, however, as he said it was tongue-in-cheek.)

The defendant was twenty-five-year-old Amanda Bonnen, who had been Horizon's tenant at the time of the tweet. Bonnen's tweet read as follows: "@JessB123 You should just come anyway. Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty [sic] thinks it's ok."

Reportedly, Bonnen had only about twenty Twitter followers at the time of the tweet. However, her profile was "public," meaning that, in theory, anyone could have read her Twitter postings.

The judge's decision to dismiss the suit seems to be a case of administering rough justice and protecting the "little guy" from a company that styled itself (humorously or not) as a proud repeat player in the litigation game. Looking exclusively to the equities here, it seems likely that Bonnen's tweet did little, if any, damage to Horizon in light of her small number of followers. Indeed, Horizon's own defamation suit probably publicized Bonnen's moldiness claim far more effectively than Bonnen's own tweet ever did. Yet Horizon demanded $50,000 in damages from Bonnen for the tweet – and doubtless, its suit forced her to incur significant legal fees on top of that.

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