This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Randy Scott, et al.,
Ogden Newspapers, Inc., d/b/a The Fairmont Sentinel,
Filed November 13, 2001
Martin County District Court
File No. C1-00-706
Michael J. Riehm, 941 Hillwind Road Northeast, Suite 200, Minneapolis, MN 55432 (for appellants)
John P. Borger, Faegre & Benson LLP, 2200 Wells Fargo Center, 90 South Seventh Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Hanson, Presiding Judge, Toussaint, Chief Judge, and Stoneburner, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
Appellants sued respondent for defamation after it published an article reporting that appellants were charged with forging checks. The actual charges were theft by check, aiding and abetting the issuance of a dishonored check, and aiding and abetting theft by check. The district court granted summary judgment on the grounds that the article was substantially true. We affirm.
Appellant Jody Scott wrote two checks to appellant Randy Scott from the bank account of their shared business. He cashed the checks at local stores and they were returned for non-sufficient funds. Appellants received a notice and demand for payment from each of the stores, but they did not submit payment as required by Minn. Stat. § 609.535, subd. 8 (1998). Appellant Randy Scott was charged with the crimes of (1) theft by check and (2) aiding and abetting the issuance of a dishonored check. See Minn. Stat. §§ 609.52, subds. 2(3)(i), 3(3)(a) (1998) (theft by check); 609.535, subds. 2, 2a(a)(1) (1998) (issuance of dishonored check); 609.05, subd. 1 (1998) (aiding and abetting). Appellant Jody Scott was charged with the crimes (1) aiding and abetting theft by check and (2) aiding and abetting the issuance of a dishonored check. See id.
Respondent published an article about the charges entitled “Ceylon couple charged with forging checks.” The article’s body identified appellants and correctly listed the specific crimes with which appellants were actually charged.
On appeal from summary judgment, we ask whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court erred in its application of the law. O’Malley v. Ulland Bros., 549 N.W.2d 889, 892 (Minn. 1996). The parties do not dispute the underlying facts. Thus, our review is de novo. Hubred v. Control Data Corp., 442 N.W.2d 308, 310 (Minn. 1989). We review the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmovants. Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993).
To succeed on a defamation claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant communicated a false statement that tended to harm the plaintiff’s reputation. Ferrell v. Cross, 557 N.W.2d 560, 565 (Minn. 1997); Foley v. WCCO Television, Inc., 449 N.W.2d 497, 500 (Minn. App. 1989), review denied (Minn. Feb. 9, 1990). “The defamatory character of any particular statement must be construed in the context of the article as a whole.” Jadwin v. Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co., 390 N.W.2d 437, 443 (Minn. App. 1986) (citation omitted).
True statements and their underlying implications, however disparaging, are not actionable. Lewis v. Equitable Life Assurance Soc’y, 389 N.W.2d 876, 889 (Minn. 1986). A statement is substantially true “if its gist or sting is true, that is, if it produces the same effect on the mind of the recipient which the precise truth would have produced.” Id. (quotation omitted). This court gives “words their obvious and natural meaning” when construing the language of the alleged libel. Id. at 442 (citation omitted).
Because neither party disputes the underlying facts, the only issue is whether the district court erred by granting summary judgment on the basis of substantial truth. The question before the district court was whether an ordinary newspaper reader would draw essentially the same conclusion from the “obvious and natural meaning” of the word “forgery” as from a description of the precise criminal charges.
Appellants argue that the labeling of their behavior as “forgery,” in both the headline and the body of the article, was defamatory. Definitions of forgery vary, but they all have in common some element of deceitful behavior. See The American Heritage Dictionary 713 (2d ed. 1985) (“[s]omething counterfeit, forged, or fraudulent”); Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 891 (Phillip Babcock Gove ed.1996) (“falsely and with fraudulent intent making or altering a writing or other written instrument”); Black’s Law Dictionary 661 (7th ed. 1999) (“[t]he act of fraudulently making a false document or altering a real one to be used as if genuine”); The Compact Edition Oxford English Dictionary (Robert W. Burchfield ed. 1971) (“[t]o make (something) in fraudulent imitation of something else in order to pass it off as genuine”).
Although appellants would characterize their behavior simply as bouncing checks, they were actually charged with theft by check which, like forgery, connotes “intentionally deceiving” and “intent to defraud.” Minn. Stat. § 609.52, subd. 2(3)(i) (1998). Thus, we agree with the district court that the article, including its headline, is substantially true. The gist or sting of the word “forgery” produces substantially the same effect on the mind of the reader as a description of the actual criminal charges. This is particularly true here, when the word “forgery” is read in the context of the article as a whole. Because the headline did not identify appellants, it could not be defamatory of them. If the reader continued, the body of the article accurately described the actual charges.