Gulrajaney v. Petricha (App. Div. 2005)

In the context of a contested 2002 election for the condominium’s board of trustees, an owner e-mailed a candidate in which she alleged misconduct on that candidate’s opponent’s behalf. Some of the facts alleged by Ms. Petricha about candidate Gulrajaney were false, unbeknownst to Ms. Petricha. The e-mail recipient forwarded that e-mail onto others, thus “publishing” a possible defamatory statement. Gulrajaney’s defamation against everyone was dismissed.

Here, the Appellate Court continued and affirmed the general rule that a candidate for a seat on a common interest community association’s board of trustees is a limited public figure, for purposes of defamation law. In the context of these elections, comments about candidates constitutes “political speech”, which “presents the strongest possible case for applications of” the First Amendment. Since a candidate for a common interest community association’s board of trustees is a limited public figure, that candidate can only win a defamation suit if he demonstrates, “by clear and convincing evidence,” that alleged defamatory statement was “made with the knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth.” Here, since Ms. Petricha did not know the statements were false when made, and the topic related to the contested election, she could not be found to have committed to tort of defamation.

This case extended similar protections to persons that take the alleged defamatory statements and publish them or forward them to others. Since the e-mail involved the board election in question and the recipients, and then publishers, had an interest in that election, their distribution of the e-mail to others was protected by “conditional or qualified privilege.” As long as the statement is not “excessively published” or the publisher knows it’s false, the privilege is preserved. Important for the publishers, this privilege is utterly unrelated to the initial author’s protection under the limited public figure doctrine.

In the end, this case and the appellate court’s opinion in Verna v. the Links at Valleybrook Neighborhood Ass’n, 371 N.J. Super. 77 (App. Div. 2004), make it clear that speakers and publishers have wide latitude in speaking, writing, etc. within the context of a common interest community association election or other matters of concern to that association.