We were all told when we were younger that sticks and stones can break our bones, but that words could not. While it is still true that words cannot break our bones, words can be actionable as defamation under the law. Until recently, it was defamation per se in New York to falsely accuse someone of being a homosexual. This means that all one needed to prove was that the statement was made and that is was false. Special damages were assumed. The recent decision by the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Yonaty v. Mincolla, changed all of that.
In Yonaty, the plaintiff, a male, alleged that a defendant, a female, falsely accused him of being a homosexual. As a result, the plaintiff alleged, he lost his girlfriend. The defendant moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s defamation claim on the ground that he did not allege special damages, such as lost profits or revenues, even assuming he was not a homosexual. The lower court denied the motion because of long standing law in New York, such as in cases like Klepetko v. Reisman, 41 A.D.3d 551, 552 (2d Dep’t 2007), which have held that falsely accusing someone of homosexuality was defamation per se, which means that damage was assumed. Examples of other defamation per se categories include accusing someone of being a felon or having a loathsome disease, such as herpes.
The Third Department in Yonaty ordered the dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint because he did not allege damages. In so holding, the Court contravened cases like Klepetko. That’s because, these prior decisions were, in the words of the Court, “based upon the flawed premise that it is shameful and disgraceful to be described as lesbian, gay or bisexual. In fact, such a rule necessarily equates individuals who are lesbian, gay or bisexual with those who have committed a ‘serious crime’ – one of the four established per se categories.”
Nevertheless, the Court’s ruling still leaves the door open for defamation claims arising from false allegations of homosexuality that may, in fact, involve special damages. Assume, for example, that someone falsely claims a boy scout leader is a homosexual. Under the Court’s ruling in Yonaty, the leader may be able to claim defamation if he can show that (1) he is not a homosexual and (2) that he lost his job because of the false statement. The Boy Scouts of America currently prohibit homosexuals from occupying positions of leadership. Thus, the Court’s reasoning accepts that while society has changed in some areas concerning stereotypes surrounding sexual preference, it has not changed in others.