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Tarquini v. Gorberg

September 9, 2010

DANA L. TARQUINI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DAVID J. GORBERG, ESQUIRE, AND DAVID J. GORBERG, P.C., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rufe, J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Dana Tarquini's ("Plaintiff" or "Tarquini") brought the instant action on February 4, 2009, alleging that she was defamed by Defendant David J. Gorberg, Esquire ("Gorberg"). Now before the Court is Defendant Gorberg and his law firm, David J. Gorberg, P.C.'s (together, "Defendants") Motion for Summary Judgment,*fn1 asking the Court to dismiss Plaintiff's one-count Complaint as a matter of law. Also before the Court is Plaintiff's Cross-Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.*fn2 These Motions have been fully briefed and are now ripe for disposition.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Defendant Gorberg is the sole shareholder and chief executive officer of Defendant Gorberg P.C., a law firm with offices in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.*fn3 On the date of the alleged incident, February 12, 2008, Plaintiff had been employed by Defendants as an attorney in the "lemon law" field for approximately five years.*fn4 On that day, Defendant Gorberg learned that Plaintiff had issued a check to herself in the amount of $1,668.46 from the firm's New Jersey business account.*fn5

Plaintiff asserts that she had the authority to reimburse herself for legitimate business expenses and that the check represented "Reimbursement CLE, new attorney luncheon, Verizon cell p[hone]";*fn6 Defendants contend that the check was unauthorized. Nevertheless, when Defendant Gorberg discovered the charge, he became upset and went to Plaintiff's office to discuss the matter with her.*fn7

The parties dispute the substance of the conversation, but it is uncontroverted that Plaintiff's employment was terminated by Defendant Gorberg during the meeting. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant came to her office "screaming that I was a thief"*fn8 and that:

I had to get out, I was fired, not to touch anything. . . . He was screaming and yelling all the way down the hallway, that I was a thief, I was fired, right out to the reception area and the front door.

He had his hand on his hip, his finger pointed out. And he said: Get out, get out, I'm calling the police, you are a thief.*fn9 Samuel LeHew, an attorney at Gorberg P.C., reportedly overheard a portion of the conversation, as follows: "I heard Dave [Gorberg] tell Dana [Tarquini] to get out. She asked why. He said, you f***ing stole from me. And then she pleaded with him. And then I heard her say something about taking her things with her."*fn10 Defendants admit to only one other subsequent publication concerning Plaintiff's termination, a statement from Gorberg to paralegal Maria Kahlan that "Plaintiff was terminated because she had written herself a check."*fn11 Kahlan testified that Gorberg volunteered the information to her despite the fact that she did not have any human resources or attorney oversight responsibilities in the firm, nor did she have any duty to fill out employment forms concerning Plaintiff's termination.*fn12

Plaintiff asserts that the news and circumstances of her termination spread quickly at the firm, and then throughout the legal community. Jacquelynn Murray, a paralegal at Gorberg P.C., only heard Gorberg say the word "leave" to Plaintiff, but soonafter heard co-workers discussing that Plaintiff "supposedly stole from Gorberg - wrote a check out."*fn13 On the evening of February 12, 2008, Tracy Jones, a former secretary/receptionist for Gorberg P.C., received four phone calls from former co-workers at Gorberg P.C., who each communicated that "Mr. Gorberg had fired Ms. Tarquini that day, and that he had been running up and down the hallway of the office accusing her of stealing from him."*fn14 On February 13th, Plaintiff alleges that she was contacted by Ann Burris, another lemon law attorney from the area.*fn15 Burris had learned from Kim Hoehing, an attorney previously employed by Gorberg P.C., that Tarquini had been fired for some kind of financial dishonesty.*fn16 Burris believes that Hoehing learned that information from someone at Gorberg P.C.*fn17 Plaintiff also received an email from Dominique Grenier, another attorney who had previously worked for Gorberg P.C., with a single line of text: ". . . kim & I aren't buying the official story . . . ."*fn18 According to Plaintiff, the "Kim" referred to in the email is Kim Hoehing.*fn19 Finally, Tarquini received a telephone message from Melissa Hanna, another former Gorberg P.C. attorney, asking: "What happened? It must have been horrible."*fn20 When Plaintiff and Hanna spoke a few weeks later, Hanna told Tarquini that she had heard that Gorberg had called Tarquini a thief.*fn21

Plaintiff avers that her reputation in the narrow field of lemon law was adversely affected by Gorberg's alleged defamatory publication, and that she faced humiliation and embarrassment as a result. She further avers that within the small pool of lawyers in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey legal community, her credibility and confidence were undermined. She was, "confused, humiliated, and felt dirty" and "afraid . . . to leave [her] house."*fn22 Plaintiff also feared that criminal charges might be filed based on Gorberg's accusation.*fn23 Plaintiff asserts that she applied to numerous new positions in various fields of law, but was unable to get a job despite her previously held view that she was a "well-known, well-respected, and well-qualified" attorney.*fn24

She received one interview, in which the interviewing attorney "asked many, many times about why [she] was let go by David Gorberg."*fn25 When Plaintiff said that she did not want to talk about it, the attorney said that he would need to "do some research."*fn26 Plaintiff did not hear the result of that research, if it was done, and she did not get the job.*fn27 While unemployed, Plaintiff participated in training courses in foreclosure, probate, and divorce work;*fn28 she stated that she avoided applying for lemon law or automobile warranty work because she felt that she was "ruined in the field."*fn29

Plaintiff began her own law firm in late 2008, but when it failed to generate adequate income, she decided in 2009 that she would pursue a career in another field.*fn30

LeHew cited an incident in which Kevin McKeon, an attorney from Marshall Dennehey, inquired into the circumstances of Tarquini's termination.*fn31 LeHew described their conversation as follows: "And he brought up Dana [Tarquini], and he said something about [Tarquini] being fired. And I said that I didn't know why she was fired. And then he made a comment that he had heard it was because she had been stealing."*fn32 LeHew stated that the reason McKeon mentioned Tarquini was that she had recently contacted him looking for work.*fn33

Plaintiff filed the underlying Complaint on February 4, 2009, containing one count of "Defamation - Slander Per Se. " Defendants filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment on November 30, 2009, arguing essentially three points: one, that the statements allegedly made by Gorberg did not amount to defamation per se ; two, Plaintiff cannot show the general damages required to state a defamation claim; and three, Gorberg's publication was privileged. Plaintiff responded with a Cross-Motion for Summary ...


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