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AMBER HILL FARM, LLC, Plaintiff, v. SAMANTHA LAWTON-DUTHIE, et al, Defendants.

No. L-1229-12

 

Plaintiff Amber Hill Farm, LLC files this Complaint against Defendants Samantha Lawton-Duthie, Ratemyhorsepro.com. John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 and
respectfully alleges as follows:

 

1. This action arises from Defendants’ conspiracy to harm, injure or otherwise destroy the business of Amber Hill Farm, LLC.

2. Plaintiff Amber Hill Farm, LLC is a company formed and existing under the laws of New Jersey, with its principal place of business in Bedminster, New Jersey. Amber Hill engages in the sales and leasing business for top-rated show horses and ponies throughout the country.

 

2. Defendant Samantha Lawton-Duthie is a citizen and resident of Louden County, Virginia.

 

3. Defendant Ratemyhorsepro.com is a website that is, upon information and belief, operated by Debbie Hanson in Chesapeake, Virginia. No ownership information is available on the website and no business with the name Ratemyhorsepro or Ratemyhorsepro.com is registered with the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

 

4. Defendant John Doe 1 is an anonymous poster on the Chronicle of the Horse website with the user name “Purepony. ” The postings by “Purepony” have disparaged or defamed Amber Hill and/or its owner, Elizabeth Mandarino. John Does 2-5 are additional people who have disparaged or defamed Amber Hill and/or its owner, Elizabeth Mandarino.

 

5. Defendant Jane Doe 1 is an anonymous poster on the website Horseshowdiva.com with the user name “Premier Pony Mom.” The postings by “Premier Pony Mom” have disparaged or defamed Amber Hill and/or its owner, Elizabeth Mandarino. Jane Does 2-5 are additional people who have disparaged or defamed Amber Hill and/or its owner, Elizabeth Mandarino.

 

6. This Court has personal jurisdiction over Defendants because they have systematically utilized the internet to post disparaging and defamatory information regarding Plaintiff. Such postings were designed to reach New Jersey, the place of Amber Hill’s business, and they were in fact published via the internet to residents of New Jersey. Further, these postings caused substantial harm to Amber Hill in New Jersey. Defendants knew at the time of their postings on the internet that Amber Hill was a New Jersey company and that their disparaging and defamatory postings would cause harm to Amber Hill in New Jersey. Furthermore, Defendant Lawton-Duthie engaged in business transactions, which gave rise to many of the postings, with Amber Hill in New Jersey.

 

 

STATEMENT OF FACTS

 

7. On or about January 24, 2012, Defendant Lawton-Duthie filed an action against Amber Hill in General District Court in Virginia. This Court is a trial court not of
record with a maximum jurisdictional limit of $25,000.00, and all judgments may be appealed de novo. Actions may be commenced by a form Warrant in Debt or by Complaint. If a Warrant in Debt is filed, there is no requirement for detailed pleadings (Bill of Particulars) unless ordered by the Court at the first return date for the matter.

 

8. At the time of filing, Defendant Lawton-Duthie filed a Bill of Particulars, which was not ordered or required by the Court. Contained in the Bill of Particulars was an allegation that was false, immaterial to the actual dispute, and made only to defame and disparage Amber Hill and its business reputation and practices. This false allegation purported to be a verbatim provision of a contract to which Defendant Lawton-Duthie was a party. Amber Hill was not a party to the contract but was the agent for the contract. The provision, if it had existed, would have required Amber Hill to pay certain funds to Defendant Lawton-Duthie. The verbatim provision did not exist however. Thus, by making the false allegation and posting it on the internet, whether directly or indirectly, Defendant Lawton·Duthie sought to disparage Amber Hill by falsely publishing that Amber Hill had retained funds to which it was not entitled as a result of a business transaction.

9. Prior to service on Amber Hill, and within days of filing. the Bill of Particulars was published on Ratemyhorsepro.com. The Warrant in Debt was not published.

 

10. Following service and retention of Virginia counsel, Amber Hill brought the clearly false allegation to the attention of counsel for Defendant Lawton-Duthie and
requested that an Amended Bill of Particulars be filed. Specifically, the request by Amber Hill’s counsel made mention of the internet posting on Ratemyhorsepro.com and the concerns associated with the publication of false allegations.

 

11. An Amended Bill of Particulars was not filed, and Amber Hill filed a Demurrer and Grounds of Defense. The Demurrer was based, in part, on the immateriality of the false allegation and the fact that the false allegation did not support a claim as a matter of law.

 

12. Ratemyhorsepro.com did not publish, and still has not published, any pleadings filed by Amber Hill despite the fact that it claims to publish all pleadings in its “Equine Court” section of the website.

13. Eventually, Defendant Lawton-Duthie flied an Amended Bill of Particulars that contained the identical false allegation. The context of the Amended Bill of Particulars further demonstrated that the allegation was immaterial to the actual dispute.

 

14. Ratemyhorsepro.com did not publish the Amended Bill of Particulars and did not publish Amber Hill’s Demurrer and Grounds of Defense to the Amended Bill of Particulars.

 

15. Following a bench trial, Defendant Lawton-Duthie was awarded approximately $4,200.00. The judge issued a letter opinion explaining his findings and ruling that Amber Hill had fulfilled its obligations as agent for Defendant Lawton-Duthie. The judge adjusted Defendant Lawton-Duthie’s invoice such that an award was made.

 

16. Ratemyhorsepro.com published the judgment amount but did not publish the letter opinion in a further attempt to deceive the public regarding the case and Amber Hill’s business practices. Ratemyhorsepro.com also did not report a verdict in the customary fashion for most verdict-reporting news sources, i.e., inclusion of the last settlement demand amount and last settlement offer amounts. Such information helps the public to fully understand the dynamics of the matter and its results. In this case, the last settlement demand by Defendant Lawton-Duthie made at trial exceeded the amount of the verdict, and the last settlement offer by Amber Hill was slightly less than the verdict amount.

 

17. Following the judgment, John Doe 2 started a thread entitled ”Blue Moon Ponies win against Amber Hill.” One post by John Doe 2 states that the decision was for Blue Moon Ponies, which is false, as Blue Moon Ponies was not a party to the lawsuit but is a competitor of Amber Hill in the pony sales and leasing business. In that same thread, John Doe 2 also disparages Amber Hill by stating that a national talent search competition created, hosted and sponsored by Amber Hill “ultimately went so awry,” and further disparages Amber Hill by stating that its owner Elizabeth Mandarino has “no real training background.”

 

18. Around the same time as the filing of the lawsuit in Virginia, John Doe 1 joined the Chronicle of the Horse forums bulletin board as user name “Purepony” and
John Doe 2 joined the Horseshowdiva.com bulletin board as user name “Premier Pony Mom.” John Doe 1 and John Doe 2 have posted overwhelmingly regarding Amber Hill and its owner Elizabeth Mandarino.

 

19. On February 18, 2012, John Doe 2 posted the following on Horseshowdiva.com:

 

“[t]here is an attorney in Florida who is working with multiple victims of Hurricane Maraschino otherwise known as EM Believe she is handling the Privitera case as well. For sure there are at least 5 or 6 former customers who have tried to retrieve their ponies and received humongous bills, which have consulted her. In fact, EM’s price sheet looks pretty fair. Unfortunately for her clients, it’s the numerous items that aren’t posted on her sheet that run a bill that might normally be $2,000 into the $8,000 & up category. Pretty tough when you’re looking at $10,000 less commission for your lease. This strategy gets customers upset … big surprise! I would bet there’ll be a class action suit brought against her in FL before too much time passes. Just have to wait and see.”

 

20. On February 27, 2012, John Doe 2 posted on Horseshowdiva.com:

 

“Just heard she’s at it again! Leased a pony, kept all the $$$ and owners have no idea where pony is or who has it. Also heard a long time customer had a pony with AHF to be sold. Pony got done but it’s been weeks & no $$$ for the owner. No statement either & no return phone calls. Guess those ponies must have run up HUGE bills on the road with the Hill, leaving nothing for the poor owners (literally). Hope everyone takes something away from [sic] all these antics so we’ll have something new to vamp about in 2013. And does anyone know if she’s closed on Quiet Hill yet or is she holding off so she can deny FL. residency & keep all those FL lawsuits out of Federal court? Just wondering?????”

 

21. The statements contained in John Doe 2’s postings are false, defamatory, and made with the sole intent to injure Amber Hill’s business.

 

22. Many of John Doe 1 and John Doe 2’s posts include directions to Ratemyhorsepro.com. For example, John Doe 2 directed readers on Horseshowdiva.com
to Ratemyhorsepro.com following the judgment in General District Court and stated that “[a]ll the court docs describing this case are there.” [emphasis added]. This statement is untrue, and upon information and belief, John Doe 2 knew at the time of making the statement that it was untrue.

 

23. As further evidence of an ongoing relationship between Defendants, John Doe 1 has directed readers on the Chronicle of the Horse forums multiple times to the website Ratemyhorsepro.com as a legitimate source of information.

 

24. Following the accidental death of one of Amber Hill’s ponies in May 2012, and in furtherance of the conspiracy to injure Amber Hill’s business, John Doe 1 admitted to contacting law enforcement to try to initiate an investigation into the incident John Doe 1 also encouraged another poster “Ponymom2012” to “see a lawyer and … file a formal complaint with USEF.”

 

25. John & Jane Does 2-5 are additional individuals who have communicated information to the public that was knowingly untrue as to the plaintiff and have caused damaged plaintiff’s reputation and business.

 

 

COUNT l
Statutory Business Conspiracy
(Va. Code Ann. §§18.2-499-18.2-500)

 

26. Plaintiff re-alleges each and every allegation set forth in Paragraphs 1 through 25 above as though fully set forth herein.

 

27. Defendants combined, associated, agreed, mutually undertook, or concerted together in Virginia to willfully and maliciously injure Amber Hill by knowingly publishing false statements and by encouraging others to make false claims against Amber Hill.

 

28. Amber Hill suffered injury to its national reputation and business, and sustained economic damages and will continue to suffer damages into the future.

29. Plaintiff is entitled to treble damages and attorney’s fees.

 

WHEREFORE, Plaintiff demands judgment against defendants jointly and severally for damages, punitive damages, interest, cost of suit, attorney fees and any other relief the Court finds equitable and just.

 

COUNT 2
Libel

 

30. Plaintiff re-alleges each and every allegation set forth in Paragraphs 1 through 29 above as though fully set forth herein.

 

31. Defendants published false and defamatory statements regarding Amber Hill’s business practices in writing on the internet.

32. These statements constitute libel and libel per se.

 

33. As a result of the libelous statements made, Amber Hill suffered substantial economic injury now and into the future.

 

WHEREFORE, Plaintiff demands judgment against defendants jointly and severally for damages, punitive damages, interest, cost of suit, attorney fees and any other relief the Court finds equitable and just.

COUNT 3

Clvil Conspiracy

34. Plaintiff re-alleges each and every allegation set forth in Paragraphs 1 through 33 above as though fully set forth herein.

35. Defendants combined, associated, agreed, mutually undertook, or concerted together to willfully and maliciously injure Amber Hill by knowingly publishing false statements and by encouraging others to make false claims against Amber Hill.

36. Amber Hill suffered injury to its national reputation and business now and into the future.

 

WHEREFORE, Plaintiff demands judgment against defendants jointly and severally for damages, punitive damages, interest, cost of suit, attorney fees and any other relief the Court finds equitable and just.

COUNT4
Tortious Interference with Prospective Economic Advantage

37. Plaintiff re-alleges each and every allegation set forth in Paragraphs 1 through 36 above as though fully set forth herein.

 

38. Defendants combined, associated, agreed, mutually undertook, or concerted together to willfully and maliciously injure Amber Hill by knowingly publishing false statements and by encouraging others to make false claims against Amber Hill.

39. Defendants’ malicious actions caused the loss of prospective economic gains by Amber Hill now and into the future.

WHEREFORE, Plaintiff demands judgment against defendants jointly and severally for damages, punitive damages, interest, cost of suit, attorney fees and any other relief the Court finds equitable and just.

JURY DEMAND
Plaintiff hereby demands a trial by jury on all issues.

 

CERTIFICATION

I hereby certify that the within matter is not the subject of any other action pending in any court, or of a pending or contemplated arbitration proceeding. I further
certify that I am not aware of any other parties who should be joined in this action at this time.

 

JOHNSTONE, SKOK, & LANE
Attorneys for Plaintiff

 

I. BLAKELY JOHNSTONE, III

 

Dated: 9/11/2012

View Complaint

View Motion to Dismiss

View Cover Letter  

View Plaintiff Certification in Support of Cross Motion   

View Brief in Support of Cross Motion      

View Plaintiff Notice of Cross Motion  

View Reply Brief on Behalf of Defendant Rate My Horse PRO, LLC  

Certification & Exhibits   

View Cover Letter  

View Defendant Lawton-Duthie’s Motion to Dismiss  

Certification & Exhibits  

View Plaintiff’s Opposition to Lawton-Duthie’s Motion to Dismiss  

View Opinion  – The judge granted RateMyHorsePRO’s motion to dismiss Amber Hill Farm’s amended complaint for “failure to state a claim” against Rate My Horse PRO.

Additionally, the Court, “has no personal jurisdiction over Rate My Horse PRO in this case.”

Lawton-Duthie Reply Brief on Motion to Dismiss  

View Opinion 

Notice of Motion for Plaintiff’s Attorney to be Relieved as Counsel  

Certification of I. Blakeley Johnstone III in Support of Motion to be Relieved As Counsel  

Order  

 

Rate My Horse PRO DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE 


All parties DISMISSED
 WITH PREJUDICE

 

 

Amber Hill Farm Pony Dies at Horse Show

Mandarino Admits Causing Pony’s Death

Elizabeth Mandarino Suspended by USEF

USEF Maintains Mandarino’s Suspension

USEF Lifts Elizabeth Mandarino’s Temporary Suspension

Amber Hill Farm Owner Under Criminal Investigation

Amber Hill Farm, Mandarino Seek Relief from Reporting

USEF Dismisses Protest Against Mandarino

USEF Protest Ruling Released in Mandarino Dismissal

NJ Court Rules in Favor of Rate My Horse PRO 

Judge Rules in Favor of Amber Hill Farm, LLC