Legal Social Networks

Our Litigious Society, Take 2: Twitter Case As Countersuit

And My Hubbub About Who Broke The Story

Corrected at 9.20 am Pacific

That Chicago tweet with the $50,000 libel suit price tag? According to Marian Wang of ChicagoNow, Horizon Realty is countersuing their former tenant, Amanda Bonnen. As the WSJ noted yesterday, “mold is gold” to lawyers.

In a press release (pdf), Horizon Realty Group claims that Bonnen filed a “class action lawsuit relating to Chicago Residential Landlord Ordinance (CRLO) violations…. This is a classic example of tenants trying to manipulate the controversial RLTO for their benefit.” [No prejudice in that statement, is there?]

Guess what? Horizon got the name and initials wrong. It’s the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (RLTO). The “controversial” ordinance is 23 years old (circa 1986).

Here’s what the Chicago Sun-Times mediator wrote about mold and apartments earlier this month:

Public health officials say common molds in dwelling units are a source of upper respiratory flu and allergy-like conditions that can lead to chronic asthma or worse….

Illinois common law grants a renter an “implied warrantee of habitability.” The landlord is responsible for maintaining rentals in a fit and livable condition. Chicago’s Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance offers a mechanism to end a lease if the landlord cannot do this….

…the tenant can hire a service to remove the mold and deduct the cost from the next rent, or reduce future rents, or move out during the next 16 days after the first notice…

In the press statement, Horizon admits that there was a leak in Bonnen’s roof. But only during roof repairs. And even then, it wasn’t their responsibility, because the leak was caused by an “external contractor.” And no mold ensued, either before the repair was instigated or while the roof leaked (only overnight!) due to the negligence (my word) of their “external contractor.”

Classic he said/she said at this point.

And I must point out an overstatement in the legal filing (pdf). Horizon claims it was “a company of good name, fame, and reputation” prior to being subjected to Bonnen’s tweet. A tweet that was an “@” reply, which means the maximum number of people who might see it was probably 20 (the number of Bonnen’s followers on 17 July). That’s because an “@” reply is distributed only to people who are “following both the sender and recipient of the update.”

However, as I noted on Tuesday, there are two negative reviews on Yelp. One of those reviews claims that Horizon acknowledged “building code violations.” Pardon me for stating the obvious, but Yelp’s readership is a lot larger than 20.

I am not a lawyer, but as a former PR professional, I think Horizon is getting bad advice from somewhere. And over at the Citizen Media Law Project, Sam Bayard writes (tip):

On the merits, I’d hate to be Horizon trying to show that Bonnen’s tweet was false, much less made with actual malice or even negligence. Read in context, the tweet refers to Bonnen’s own apartment (“You should just come anyway”), not Horizon apartments in general.  Unless the statement was a total fabrication (and what could be gained by making this up?), Bonnen shouldn’t have too much trouble supporting it with evidence.

Finally, I managed to create my own little hubbub yesterday when I tweeted:

Why didn’t the Chicago SunTimes [] credit ChicagoNow [] for breaking the Horizon Realty Twitter story?

I deduced (CST says I’m wrong) that CN broke the story because (a) it was the only article that I read which was dated Monday, 27 July and (b) it was the only article that I read which referenced Bonnen’s Twitter account in the present tense; all other news accounts said that the account had been closed. The Sun-Times article didn’t mention one-way or the other.

Moreover, CN was the only source that provided a link to the complaint; that alone makes it the best of the two stories, hands down, in my opinion. Too bad newspaper websites seem hamstrung (locked into non-web structure) by their print editions.

Jimmy Greenfield, at the Sun-Times Chicago Now, says that ChicagoNow beat them by 20 minutes. I’ve asked him to help me understand the timestamp difference. Maybe they were working close to midnight? No – he says 5.21 v 5.41 pm. Plus, the Sun-Times URL contains “28” not “27”. Maybe there was an earlier story? [Added: he won’t be able to help me, I’m afraid. Teach me that my brain isn’t 100% when it’s hot-with-no-AC.]

An anonymous person (@SunTimes) was a little more terse in insisting that ST had the article online “last night.” But they were also misleading:

@TheNewsChick Further, the CBS2 story the @chicagonow blog post references is actually from our STNG news service.

Yeah, but. That CBS2 reference? It was in the ChicagoNow update (not timestamped), not the original post. And the update was all about media coverage:

UPDATED: Rounding up the buzz… Will one Chicago woman’s Tweet cost her $50,000?

Amanda Bonnen’s Twitter account has been closed. This morning I got a call from WGN radio, asking about how to get in touch with her. So Amanda, if you’re reading, a lot of people out there are interested in hearing your take on the situation. Anyone out there who knows how to get in touch with her, feel free shoot me an email or, for that matter, a tweet.

I never expected the story to heat up as fast as it has, but we’ve got bloggers weighing in left and right; Tribune columnist Eric Zorn has shared his thoughts on the lawsuit. Chicago Breaking News, WGN-TV, CBS2, Windy Citizen, the Sun-Times, Huffington Post all have picked up on what’s happening.

Can you tell I like @jcgreenx more than @Suntimes? Part of the reason, I’m pretty sure, is that I simply don’t like anonymous tweets (no names on corporate account). Still, it would have been courteous (on many levels) for ChicagoNow to have linked to those other mentions. [Added: per two Tweets, Marian says the links were lost in a copy-and-paste technical glitch.]

I’m certain there’s a moral or two somewhere here, but I’m too tired (and hot) to find it!

Addendum: I loved this WordPress theme until I just looked at the mess that is the code. Double spans at the start and end of a paragraph?!?

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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