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Puryear Law P.C. v. Fishback

Court of Appeals of Iowa

September 11, 2019

PURYEAR LAW P.C. and ERIC D. PURYEAR, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
DIRK J. FISHBACK and JESSICA HARBAUGH, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Scott County, Nancy S. Tabor, Judge.

         Plaintiffs appeal the district court's dismissal of a defamation action against the defendants.

          Eric D. Puryear and Eric S. Mail of Puryear Law P.C., Davenport, for appellants.

          Dirk Fishback and Jessica Harbaugh, Garber, pro se appellees.

          Considered by Doyle, P.J., May, J., and Mahan, S.J. [*] Tabor, J., takes no part.

          MAHAN, SENIOR JUDGE.

         Puryear Law P.C. and Eric Puryear (collectively, Puryear) appeal the district court's dismissal of a defamation action against Dirk Fishback and Jessica Harbaugh (collectively, Fishback), contending the district court erred in granting Fishback's motion for directed verdict. Upon our review, we affirm.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         Fishback sought Puryear's representation for a postconviction-relief proceeding. Fishback entered into a contract for legal services with Puryear and deposited a $1000 retainer. Fishback made two additional payments, $192 and $135, over the next several months. Puryear reviewed Fishback's case and explained his "options." Fishback decided to end Puryear's representation with a $112.50 balance remaining due on his account. Thereafter, Fishback posted a negative online review about Puryear on Google.[1] "Dirk Fishbackk" wrote:

I would not recommend this lawfirm and agree with some of the other neg[ative] reviews as I had the same issues after being charged $1500 for really nothing being done. Can't even make an appointment until they are paid in full and up to date. You might get 7 days to pay. Working on the road I was overdue before I even had a chance to get the bill.

         Puryear filed a petition raising claims of breach of contract and defamation against Fishback. The case was tried to a jury; at the close of Puryear's evidence and again at the close of all the evidence, Fishback moved for directed verdict on the defamation claim. The district court granted the motion and dismissed the defamation claim. Puryear then voluntarily dismissed the breach-of-contract claim. Puryear appeals.[2]

         II. Standard of Review

         We review the district court's rulings on motions for directed verdict for correction of errors at law. Estate of Pearson ex rel. Latta v. Interstate Power & Light Co., 700 N.W.2d 333, 340 (Iowa 2005). In reviewing such rulings, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party to determine whether the evidence generated a fact question. Dettmann v. Kruckenberg, 613 N.W.2d 238, 250-51 (Iowa 2000). "To overcome a motion for directed verdict, substantial evidence must exist to support each element of the claim or defense." Yates v. Iowa W. Racing Ass'n, 721 N.W.2d 762, 768 (Iowa 2006). "Substantial evidence exists if reasonable minds could accept the evidence to reach the same findings." Id.

         III. Discussion

         Iowa's defamation law "embodies the public policy that individuals should be free to enjoy their reputation unimpaired by false and defamatory attacks." Bandstra v. Covenant Reformed Church, 913 N.W.2d 19, 46-47 (Iowa 2018) (citation omitted). "We recognize two types of defamation: per quod and per se." Id. Per se defamation has "a natural tendency to provoke the plaintiff to wrath or expose [the plaintiff] to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or to deprive [the plaintiff] of the benefit of public confidence or social intercourse." Bierman v. Weier, 826 N.W.2d 436, 444 (Iowa 2013) (citation omitted). In actions between a private plaintiff and a nonmedia defendant, per se defamation does not require proof of malice, falsity, or damage. See id. Per quod defamation requires a third party to refer "to facts or circumstances beyond the words actually used to establish the defamation." Bandstra, 913 N.W.2d at 46. "To succeed in proving defamation per quod, a party must prove six elements: (1) publication, (2) a defamatory statement, (3) falsity, (4) maliciousness, (5) the statement was of or concerning the party, and (6) a resulting injury." Id.

         Here, Puryear's petition raised the claim of defamation per se, alleging Fishback's statements were "false" and "attack[ed] the integrity and moral character of [Puryear]." At the outset of trial, Puryear reiterated it was proceeding as a defamation per se action. The parties focused on two statements in Fishback's review-"charged $1500 for really nothing being done" and "[c]an't even make an appointment until they are paid in full and up to date." Fishback moved for directed verdict, claiming Puryear had not shown Fishback's ...


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