The District of Columbia Circuit Court recently dismissed attorney John Szymkowicz’s defamation lawsuit against the author of the website “Legal Profession Blog,” finding that Szymkowicz failed to demonstrate that his potential damages met the $75,000 threshold required to establish federal jurisdiction.
In Szymkowicz v. Frisch, No. CV 19-3329 (BAH), 2020 WL 4432240 (D.D.C. July 31, 2020), Georgetown University Law Center professor Szymkowicz brought a claim for defamation, invasion of privacy—false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress arising from posts by Frisch, which claimed he had committed elder abuse against a client. Szymkowicz alleged that the posts injured his personal and professional reputation, injured his standing in the community, cost him a loss of income and business opportunities, and prompted him to experience “mental anguish and personal humiliation.”
On July 31, 2020, U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell dismissed the case, holding that Szymkowicz failed to prove that the collectable damages met the $75,000 threshold. The Court found that allegations of damage to one’s “personal and professional reputation…economic damages, loss of income, and loss of business opportunity; and…mental anguish and personal humiliation” merely represented assertions of types of harms as opposed to the necessary assertions of specific instances of harms, and therefore were too vague to quantify.
The case demonstrates that a vague assertion of damages may be insufficient to maintain federal jurisdiction, as alleged damages—such as loss of income—constitute special damages, which must be specifically stated. Judge Howell held that while a party is not technically required to show specific loss under presumed damages, presumed damages must approximate actual harms. Because Szymkowicz did not provide any specific examples of harm, Szymkowicz’s alleged damages could not met the jurisdictional threshold.
Judge Howell did not reach First Amendment arguments asserted by Frisch; the dismissal was based solely on Szymkowicz’s inadequate assertion of damages.