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Court of Chancery Holds it Lacks Subject Matter Jurisdiction over Defamation Claims

Stephen G. Perlman, Rearden LLC, and Artemis Networks, LLC v. Vox Media, Inc., C. A. No. 10046-VCS (Del. Ch. June 27, 2019).

Unlike most U.S. states and the federal legal system, Delaware retains the historic distinction between courts of law and courts of equity.   In the absence of a statute granting it jurisdiction over specific claims, the Delaware Court of Chancery has subject matter jurisdiction only where a complaint (i) states an equitable claim, or (ii) seeks an equitable remedy in circumstances where there is no adequate remedy at law.  Here, the Court of Chancery held that it lacks subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate defamation claims. Specifically, entrepreneur and inventor Stephen G. Perlman and his companies asserted claims of defamation against Vox Media, Inc., and requested relief that included a mandatory injunction requiring the removal of the offending articles from Vox’s websites, a public retraction, and compensatory damages.  In response to Vox’s motion for summary judgment, the Court followed its recent decision in Organovo Hlds., Inc. v. Dimitrov, 162 A.3d 102 (Del. Ch. 2017) (Laster, V.C.) and concluded that “in connection with a claim for defamation, the Court of Chancery, in all instances, lacks subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate the questions of whether a defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff and whether it did so with actual malice.” (emphasis added). Organovo explained that these factual questions have historically been reserved for juries rather than judges, and these determinations are best suited for adjudication by a court of law.  Plaintiffs’ effort to couple their defamation claims with requests for equitable relief in the form of an injunction directed at past defamatory statements did not confer equitable jurisdiction, because declaratory relief and money damages generally are adequate remedies at law for defamation claims. The Court explained that equity will intervene to provide injunctive relief only in situations where the defamation claim has been adjudicated in a court of law and legal relief has failed to preclude ongoing publication or is otherwise inadequate.  Accordingly, because it lacked subject matter jurisdiction, the Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, but gave the plaintiffs the option to transfer the case to Delaware’s Superior Court, a court of law.