August 8, 2008

When you set out to destroy someone's good name, are you responsible to the other people who happen to have that name?

Matthew C. Ryan is not the most unusual name. It's not unique, but it's also not John Smith — a name so common that when you hear something bad about someone with that name, you don't assume it relates to any particular person with that name. If you hear Matthew C. Ryan, you may very well assume it's the Matthew C. Ryan you know. This is especially so when the name is also tied to a specific place — in this case, the University of Texas in Austin, Texas.

A Google search for Matthew C. Ryan today yields a mere 797 hits, and this is after all the stories telling us one of the names behind the pseudonyms in the lawsuit brought by the Yale law students who had some mean, nasty thing written about them on the AutoAdmit website. Surely, before the release of the name, a Google search would show that it is surprisingly rare worldwide and that there is another Matthew C. Ryan at the the University of Texas. But they sent the name out anyway, and the damage has been done.

Now, is that a tort? The lawprof lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs is enthused about the expansion of tort liability for speech that damages reputation or causes emotional distress, so it will be sad if he can't enjoy the expansive theories of tort law that may come in the form of a lawsuit filed by Matthew C. Ryan. But the pleasure is there for fans of irony and poetic justice. To top it all off, Matthew C. Ryan is a lawprof lawyer. Sweet!

Yes, you could say a lawprof lawyer should have a thick skin and tough it out. Hey, I thought the Yale law students would do better to show the world — and their future clients and employers — that they have thick skins and can tough it out. But they brought a lawsuit. They wanted to show that there are consequences for the things you say that hurt people, consequences that courts should enforce.

Well, then.

Lawsuits. They breed.


MadisonMan said...

There is a delightful irony to this story. It couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of plaintiffs. Life is so unfair!

Really, sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing.

Pogo said...

"Lawsuits. They breed."

Mostly contempt.

For lawyers, and the law.

Simon said...

Potentially, yes, if reasonable care wasn't taken. My understanding is that ATL identified the wrong Ryan and posted the CV of the wrong Ryan, exacerbating the mistaken identity problem. If that's correct (and I may have misunderstood, I really try to stay away from ATL), I'd think Ryan might have a claim.

P. Rich said...

When it comes to lawsuits, the United States is pretty much the laughing-stock of the civilized world. They think it's pretty ridiculous that we have so many lawyers and such a litigious society.

No, I haven't surveyed the entire civilized world. But I have had this conversation with Brits and Kiwis and Aussies and Germans and Japanese. We may have borrowed heavily from English law, but somewhere along the line the process has gotten out of control.

The "legal profession" has become just another huge, self-serving bureaucracy protected by the Democrats in return for massive campaign contributions ($20+M so far in the 2008 election cycle, and number one on the list of identifiable contributing "industries" - see for details). Reforms? Don't hold your breath. Ugh.

Randy said...

Above the Law failed to perform due diligence before publishing the wrong person's resume and associating it with the other similarly-named person. The fault, and legal liability, lies with Above the Law, not the plaintiff's attorneys.

MadisonMan said...

So is Matthew C. Ryan suing?

I think it would be classy, by the way, for Matthew C. Ryan to contact Matthew C. Ryan and apologize for being his doppelganger in name only.

rhhardin said...

I think the damages are all that's inflated, not the causes of action.

If somebody hurts your feelings, you ought to be entitled to up to a cap of one dollar in compensation.

The legal system will then sort itself out in light of this new common sense.

Randy said...

RHHardin: I don't know about you, but I think the average person would think more than "hurt feelings" were involved were they to discover that a website viewed by thousands daily had identified them (with their resume attached) as being the named defendant in such a lawsuit.

Shannon Love said...

Lawsuits. They breed.

With apologies:

Great lawsuits spawn lesser lawsuits
Which turn around and bite them
And lesser lawsuits spawn yet lesser lawsuits
And so on ad infinitum

PatHMV said...

Oh, please, Ann.... I know you've never liked the plaintiffs in the AutoAdmit suit, but this is rather a stretch even given your hostility to them. They named a defendant in a lawsuit. That's it. If the AutoAdmit defendant hadn't been anonymous to begin with and said the same things and been sued, the same confusion would result.

Your espoused sarcastic, straw-man theory would mean that if I sued somebody, making all sorts of nasty (and true) allegations about them, and somebody else had the same name but had not done those things, then that innocent party would have a cause of action against me.

"They sent the name out anyway"? How exactly do you think that is tortious? What were they supposed to do, maintain the secrecy of the name in perpetuity because there are other people out there with the same name?

MadisonMan said...

Shannon, I learned this one:

Big whorls have lesser whorls
That feed on their velocity
And lesser whorls have smaller whorls
And so on to viscosity.

This explains the time evolution of Althousian vortices.

Mortimer Brezny said...

I love this post.

Kev said...

"They sent the name out anyway"? How exactly do you think that is tortious? What were they supposed to do, maintain the secrecy of the name in perpetuity because there are other people out there with the same name?

No, but they could have been a lot more specific with what was sent out. It could have been as simple as using middle names...and if, on the off chance that the "C" stood for the same thing in both Matthew Ryans' names, they could have listed their age or occupation.

(If each had been a Jim Smith, this might have required them to be even more specific, but, as was stated earlier, few people who heard about a Jim Smith being charged with anything would automatically assume that it was "their" Jim Smith who was involved.)

Simon said...

So any Bryan R. Langs in the nation have a tort claim against the United States, I suppose?

Simon said...

I should clarify in view of Pat's comment - which in substance I agree with - my comment earlier covered a tort claim against ATL, not against the plaintiffs.

Triangle Man said...

Ann, :D is the one who brought discredit to the name Matthew C. Ryan.

Kev said...

So any Bryan R. Langs in the nation have a tort claim against the United States, I suppose?

I'm far from being someone who can knowledgeably decide whether or not something is a tort (IANAL, IANALS, etc.). I was just expressing the idea that more care could have been taken in this case (especially when it might not have taken too much Google time to figure out that there was more than one Matthew C. Ryan in Austin).

But that brings up an interesting question: If someone shares that much of a name (first and last names, plus middle initial) with a person who has been accused of a highly-publicized crime, is the burden entirely on the non-suspect to dissasociate him/herself from the actual suspect, or do the legal system, media, etc., have any obligation to state as clearly as possible which person is involved? (I'm thinking it must have been awful, for example, to be another Lee Harvey Oswald in November of '63.)

blake said...

P. Rich--

But, as I understand it, the ability to sue each other (without having to go back to England) was part of the impetus for breaking away from England in the first place.

A three-month sea voyage tends to dwarf a lot of the potential benefit of a lawsuit.

Kirk Parker said...


That's genius!

randazza said...

A legal team consisting of "Reputation Defender," two lawprofs, and four associates didn't think to do a Google search?

A pack of idiots who want to make the internet safe for the most thin-skinned crybabies that society can produce have absolutely no instinct to exercise discretion and sensitivity toward anyone else.

So far the only people they've managed to do anything to are "collateral damage" parties.

Hellervani claim that when employers googled them, they lost jobs. Yet nobody thought to google "Matthew C. Ryan?" Or, if they did, they couldn't spare a microgram of extra toner to add the words "an undergraduate student at the University of Texas" to the "parties" section of their third complaint?

All that said, I think that the brats and their team are off the hook, legally speaking. Litigation privilege seems like it would apply.

PG said...

The named defendant's name is spelled differently -- Mathew (note the single "t") C. Ryan. That ATL wants to jump on any news it can claim to have discovered is unsurprising, as it is the result that it will sometimes make mistakes through haste.

Bizarre that randazza and althouse are trying to further the misreporting of the name by claiming it's "Matthew C. Ryan," though.
[remembers axes to grind]
Oh, wait, not bizarre.

randazza said...

Are you sure about that?

The Hellervani crack legal team spells it both ways in teh complaint.

And, the University of Texas student directory spells it "Matthew." link.

With such poor research skills and lack of attention to detail, you would be a prime candidate for an associate position at a so-called "prestigious" litigation boutique in the 415 area code. Send them a resume!

Harvard said...

Prof. Althouse - Can you spell out the theories of liability that you think would apply here a little more carefully and thoroughly? What causes of action would the potentially wronged Mr. Ryan assert and how are the elements satisified?

Contrary to the impression given by most Internet commentary on this case, there is actually a well-developed body of law that covers this area. Your grasp of the relevant doctrines seems feeble, to say the least.

Are you prepared to prove me wrong, or will my and my colleagues' opinions of Wisconsin continue to fall due to the institution's affiliation with your muddled ramblings?

On a related note, I'm wondering if Wisconsin's continuing fall in the U.S. News rankings has occasioned any uncomfortable conversations between you and your dean.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Ann Althouse said...

Harvard, you don't seem to have a creative mind. Too bad you didn't go to Yale or Stanford.