In a full-fledged opinion by Justice Saxe, the First Department determined that letters written by a client to an attorney, terminating the attorney’s employment, were not actionable under a defamation theory for three reasons: the statements constituted opinion; the statements were absolutely privileged; and the statements were qualifiedly privileged. With respect to qualified privilege, the First Department wrote:
…[T]he statements contained in defendants’ letters would be subject to a qualified privilege as communications upon a subject matter in which both parties had an interest … . “The shield provided by a qualified privilege may be dissolved if plaintiff can demonstrate that defendant [made the statement] with malice,'” which may mean either spite or ill will, or knowledge that the statement was false or made in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity … . The statement must have been made with a proper purpose, and publication must be in a proper manner and to proper parties only … .
A client’s letter to an attorney terminating the attorney’s services and explaining the client’s perceived grounds for the termination qualifies as a communication on a subject in which sender and recipient have a shared interest. Where the letter is sent only to the attorney, and access to its contents is limited to the recipient and the defendant (which includes any of defendant’s employees who assisted in its preparation), proper publication is established as a matter of law. Plaintiff’s bare allegations of malice are insufficient to prevent dismissal on this ground.
“The threat of being put to the defense of a lawsuit . . . may be as chilling to the exercise of First Amendment freedoms as fear of the outcome of the lawsuit itself” … . As a matter of public policy, which should protect open and honest communication between attorneys and their clients, clients must be permitted to make such claims, or complaints, directly to their attorneys, and to their attorneys alone, without threat of a lawsuit. Frechtman v Gutterman, 2014 NY slip Op 00437, 1st Dept 1-23-14