Ontario recognizes tort of online harassment

In Caplan v. Atas1, the Superior Court of Justice recognized a new common law tort of online harassment. This case reflects a departure from a recent decision of the Court of Appeal for Ontario which overturned the recognition of a common law tort of harassment2.

What you need to know

  • The defendant in this case had engaged in a long history of abuse and harassment over the internet. The court concluded that the available remedies available to the plaintiffs were inadequate and recognized the new tort of “harassment in internet communications”.
  • The test for the new tort is stringent. A plaintiff must show that that they suffered harm and that the defendant “maliciously or recklessly engages in communications conduct; so outrageous in character, duration, and extreme in degree, so as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and tolerance”, with the “intent to cause fear, anxiety, emotional upset or to impugn the dignity of the plaintiff”3.
  • The decision represents a further step in the Ontario courts’ response to the profound harm that can be caused when harmful statements are published online, where they can fester and victimize their targets unchecked. While the decision is based on extreme facts, it demonstrates the courts’ willingness to find a remedy in the absence of internet regulation or legislation to address these consequences.
  • It is possible, although not probable, that corporations could rely on the tort of online harassment if they have been harmed by similarly outrageous and extreme online attacks.

Factual background

The decision concerned four cases brought against the defendant, Nadire Atas, who used the internet “to disseminate vicious falsehoods against those towards whom she bears grudges, and towards family members and associates of those against whom she bears grudges”4. The facts in this case are extreme. The Court spared no words, finding Atlas’ behaviour to be “sociopathic”5. There were as many as 150 victims of her “cyber-stalking” and “systematic campaigns of malicious falsehood to cause emotional and psychological harm”, some of which began as offline harassment as early as the 1990s.

Atas suffered consequences as a result of her conduct, and the prolonged litigation she had created: she was declared a vexatious litigant, cited for contempt of court and imprisoned for 74 days (plus a day in custody), became insolvent, and damaged her reputation by way of numerous decisions in the public record regarding her conduct. Undeterred, the Court described her as “[u]nrestrained by basic tenets of decency, when she is enjoined from attacking named plaintiffs, she moves her focus to their siblings, their children, their other family members and associates, in a widening web of vexatious and harassing behaviour”6.

The plaintiffs in three of the cases moved for summary judgment, and in the fourth moved for default judgment. Atas did not put forward evidence on any of the motions, despite being given ample opportunity to do so. From the plaintiffs’ “voluminous” record, the court concluded that most of the thousands of online posts were defamatory of the plaintiffs and were published by Atas. A minority were merely abusive comments which could not ground liability in defamation. The Court found that the sites on which the posts were published “may be viewed almost anywhere in the world by anyone with access to the internet”.

The Court went on to recognize the tort of online harassment, finding that the law of defamation “provides some recourse for the targets of this kind of conduct, but that recourse is not sufficient to bring the conduct to an end or to control the behaviour of the wrongdoer”7. In so doing, the Court distinguished the Court of Appeal’s decision in Merrifield v Canada (Attorney General)8, which we previously summarized here. Unlike in Merrifield, the Court found there was a compelling reason to recognize the tort in this case, which we analyze below.

Damages

  • The Court ordered a permanent injunction barring Atas from disseminating, publishing, distributing, communicating or posting on the internet by any means with respect to all plaintiffs and other victims of her defamation and harassment, together with their families and related persons, and business associates. It did not foreclose a complete prohibition from posting on the internet for this type of behaviour.
  • The Court vested title to all the postings in the plaintiffs, with ancillary orders enabling them to have the content removed, recognizing that Atas would likely prolong the conflict between the parties if she was ordered to remove them.
  • No financial remedy was awarded. On the eve of the motions, Atas made an assignment in bankruptcy. The plaintiffs elected to withdraw their financial claims rather than stay the proceedings.

The patchwork approach to address online conduct

This decision is another in a line of cases in which the Ontario courts have grappled with applying the existing common law to the realities of the internet9. The internet has provided a “means of mass communication” to those who seek to spread defamatory statements or private information about their victims with little recourse as the law tries to keep up. The Court quoted at length from Jane Doe 464533 v. N.D., the 2016 decision that recognized the tort of public disclosure of private facts:

In recent years, technology has enabled predators and bullies to victimize others by releasing their nude photos or intimate videos without consent. We now understand the devastating harm that can result from these acts, ranging from suicides by teenage victims to career-ending consequences when established persons are victimized.

The Court acknowledged that online harassing, bullying, hate speech and cyber stalking straddle criminal and civil law, and yet while we know they are a significant problem and cause “devastating harm”, there are few practical remedies available to victims of these wrongful acts. While some common law jurisdictions have legislated to fill the remedial gap (including England, Australia, New Zealand), Ontario has not.

In the absence of legislation and presented with facts that “cry out for a remedy”, the Court established the tort of online harassment. However, the Court also recognized the fine balance between freedom of speech and the necessary limit on that freedom—a balance that the internet has “cast […] into disarray”10. To maintain that balance, “only the most serious and persistent of harassing conduct” rises to the level necessary to ground the tort11.

Where does the tort of online harassment fit?

The Court set out a “stringent” test, based in American case law, to establish the tort of online harassment. A plaintiff must show:

  1. the defendant maliciously or recklessly engaged in communications conduct so outrageous in character, duration, and extreme in degree, so as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and tolerance;
  2. the defendant had the intent to cause fear, anxiety, emotional upset or to impugn the dignity of the plaintiff; and
  3. the plaintiff suffered such harm.

Faced with the Court of Appeal’s decision in Merrifield, which did not foreclose a “properly conceived tort or harassment that might apply in appropriate contexts”, the decision had to provide a “compelling reason” to recognize the tort in this case12. The Court found that the facts of this case were “very different” from the facts of Merrifield, and the existing law was not sufficient to address all aspects of Atas’ wrongful conduct. The distinctions drawn from existing torts are summarized below:

  • Defamation. While the Court found Atas liable for defamation, it also found that in these types of cases “the intent is to go beyond character assassination: it is intended to harass, harry and molest by repeated and serial publications of defamatory material, not only of primary victims, but to cause those victims further distress by targeting persons they care about, so as to cause fear, anxiety and misery”13. Traditional remedies in defamation are not sufficient to address this type of vexatious behaviour.
  • Intentional infliction of mental suffering. This tort is designed to address different situations than online harassment. Specifically, the requirement that the defendant’s conduct results in visible and provable illness is too high a standard to apply to injury from harassment. The Court commented that the law would be deficient if it did not provide a remedy until a victim of harassment suffered visible and provable illness.
  • Invasion of privacy. This tort is also designed to address different conduct: Atas had not invaded the plaintiffs’ private affairs or concerns. Instead, she caused harm by persistently publishing falsehoods about them.

While the Court considered whether the conduct could be remedied by the above torts, it did not have the benefit of the decision in Yenovkian v. Gulian14 at the time of the hearing, which recognizes the tort of false light (we summarize the decision here). The false light tort seemingly addresses similar conduct: it is established where a person is portrayed publicly in a false light, the false light is highly offensive to the reasonable person, and the defendant had knowledge or acted in reckless disregard of the falsity. In this case, the tort of false light would not have addressed the harassment caused by Atas’ attacks on a plaintiff’s friends and/or family members. However, until a decision considers the interplay between these two torts, thought should be given to which more accurately fits the harm a plaintiff has suffered.

Can the tort apply to corporations?

While the facts of Atas centre on individuals targeted with harassing conduct, it is not difficult to imagine similar conduct aimed at a corporation. A disgruntled customer may take to online forums, review websites and social media in an attempt to destroy a business’ reputation. An activist shareholder may similarly spread misinformation or harmful statements with the intention of reducing a corporation’s value. In those circumstances, can the corporation rely on the tort of online harassment?

To begin, it would take equally outrageous facts as in Atas to establish the tort on behalf of a corporation—a few bad reviews on Yelp will not be sufficient. The conduct aside, more difficulty would arise at the second and third stages of the test: the types of harm that must be intended and suffered are not typical of a corporation. A successful pleading for online harassment against a corporation will have to analogize the specific harm suffered by the corporation, perhaps a diminished reputation or loss of goodwill, to the harm identified in Atas (fear, anxiety, emotional upset, and impugned dignity). While we do not foreclose the possibility that a business could make out a case for online harassment, it will take the right facts and some legal creativity.

Takeaways: pleading online harassment

As is often the case with novel torts, time will tell whether the decision in Atas stands and how widely it is applied. As a vexatious litigant, Atas requires leave from the court to appeal the decision. However, leave may be more likely in the face of a new tort of harassment so soon after Merrifield. For now, this case leaves us with the following guidance:

  • Online harassment is directed at internet communications, reflecting the Ontario courts’ continuing recognition of the distinct and severe harms caused by online abuse. The decision does not appear to extend to harassing behaviour that occurs offline—it is intended to be a “solution tailored for these cases”15. A more general tort of harassment will require further refinement of the common law, or legislative intervention.
  • The threshold to establish online harassment is “stringent”. Although the conduct giving rise to the tort must be extreme and outrageous, the injury need not be. While the Court was careful to limit the tort to the most serious examples of conduct, the lower threshold for injury may open the door to a broader range of cases.
  • The tort of online harassment captures conduct that might not otherwise be captured by defamation or existing privacy torts, such as an online posting that is abusive in nature but does not constitute a statement of fact that is true or untrue. In those cases, such publications may now be considered as part of a pattern of harassment.
  • In this case, Atas persisted in a consistent pattern of harassment against her victims which, together with extensive evidence from the plaintiffs, allowed the Court to conclude that she was behind the anonymous posts. This type of evidence may not always be available to a plaintiff who is victimized by an anonymous internet user. We will wait to see how the law develops to address this reality—or if it can at all, in the absence of regulation.
  • The Court did not foreclose the possibility of imposing a strict permanent injunction barring all posting on the internet, with few exceptions, where a defendant is demonstrably ungovernable. This likely represents the high-water mark. The decision provides no guidance on monetary damages that would adequately compensate the type of injuries this tort is designed to address.

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1 2021 ONSC 670

2 2019 ONCA 205. We previously wrote about the decision in Merrifield here.

3 Para. 171

4 Para. 1

5 Para. 3

6 Para. 2

7 Para. 104

8 2019 ONCA 205

9 See for example Jane Doe 464533 v N.D., 2016 ONSC 541 and Yenovkian v. Gulian, 2019 ONSC 7279.

10 Para. 5

11 Para. 174

12 Para. 164, quoting Merrifield at para. 40.

13 Para. 168

14 2019 ONSC 7279. However, the decision in Yenovkian was available for approximately a year while the decision was under reserve. It is not addressed in the reasons.

15 Para. 6

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