Lawyer loses defamation suits against condo MC member

A lawyer failed in a defamation suit against a housewife after a judge found her justified in taking issue over his competence as the secretary of a condominium management council (MC).

Mr Govinda Gopalan also lost a second libel suit last month to Ms Teoh Chooi Sian in the same court over a complaint she had made to the Law Society. He alleged that the complaint defamed him.

In the first suit, Mr Govinda, as honorary secretary of the sixth MC of the Casa Merah condo development, sued Ms Teoh, who was also a council member, over an e-mail she sent on Oct 25, 2016, to 14 recipients, including MC members.

District Judge Tan May Tee in judgment grounds on April 30 dismissed the case, ruling that "while the defendant's e-mail carried a defamatory imputation, the pleaded defences of justification and qualified privilege prevailed".

Ms Teoh had taken issue in the e-mail with the minutes of the MC meeting, which she said should reflect what happened at the meeting, adding that "any additional facts included are fabrications".

She suggested, among other things, that Mr Govinda should retire and let someone else take over if "not up to the task of ensuring the minutes are accurate".

Mr Govinda, through lawyer R.S. Bajwa, raised several matters in her e-mail and argued that the words meant he was unsuitable for the post, which caused serious damage to his standing in the MC.

Ms Teoh, defended by lawyers Megan Chia and Jacqueline Gwee, denied the e-mail was defamatory, arguing that the issue she had raised in the e-mail was to disagree with the inclusion of a matter in the minutes of the Sept 14, 2016 meeting that was not discussed by the MC then.

District Judge Tan found Ms Teoh vindicated by the inaccuracies found in the minutes of the MC meetings.

"The fact that there were numerous inaccuracies, pointed out by various MC members (which touched on various matters besides the extended mandate issue), was sufficient to justify the defendant's defamatory statement that the plaintiff was not up to the task of ensuring that the circulated minutes were accurate," added the district judge.

District Judge Tan accepted that Ms Teoh, as an MC member, had a duty to raise the issue, and others involved had a corresponding interest in knowing if the minutes had been accurately prepared.

"I find that the e-mail was published on an occasion of qualified privilege," the district judge said, adding that the malice allegations were not proven and did not cross the high bar required to negate the protection of qualified privilege.

Mr Govinda's second lawsuit related to the complaint Ms Teoh had made to the Law Society on Dec 1, 2016, about his conduct. The society's review committee considered and dismissed the complaints as variously frivolous, vexatious and misconceived.

District Judge Tan dismissed his suit, holding that the complaint was made on an occasion of qualified privilege, notwithstanding that there was no solicitor-client relationship between the plaintiff and the condo's MC.

"Malice was not proven. The evidence adduced before me does not show that the defendant was actuated by such improper motives in making the complaint as to deprive her of the protection of privilege."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2020, with the headline 'Lawyer loses defamation suits against condo MC member'. Subscribe