Trouble for Breaking the Mother of All Laws?

Although many may find Croonquist's shtick funny, her in-laws aren't laughing.
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In the wake of Mother's Day this past weekend, some may be comforted to know that they probably can't be held liable -- at least not in a Court of law -- for insulting their mother-in-law no matter how offensive their insults. As was reported in the news, in March of 2009, that comedian Sunda Croonquist was sued in the New Jersey Superior Court by her mother-in-law, Ruth Zafrin, and sister and brother-in-law, Shelley and Neil Edelman, for essentially mocking her Jewish in-laws in a stand-up comedy routine and website. Croonquist's husband, attorney Mark Zafrin (who is Ruth's son and Shelley's brother), chose his wife's side and defended the suit.

By way of background, Croonquist, who was born in Patterson, New Jersey, to an African-American mother and Swedish father and raised Catholic, apparently converted to Judaism when she married Zafrin approximately twelve years ago. However, it has long been part of Croonquist's comedy routine to describe rather caustically the difficulties she has had dealing with her in-laws as a bi-racial woman integrating into a Jewish family. Although many may find Croonquist's shtick funny, her in-laws aren't laughing.

Indeed, the Complaint they filed against Croonquist alleges that the comedian has made numerous unflattering and false statements about them which have subjected them to public ridicule. For example, they accuse Croonquist of referring to Shelley Edelman as a "dumb," "Jewish broad" and comparing her voice to a "cat in heat." They also claim Croonquist has labeled Shelley as "someone who makes racist remarks," and accused her mother-in-law, Ruth Zafrin, of being a "racist" who treats her other grandchildren better than Croonquist's own kids "probably because they're white, they're better in her eyes."

In an attempt to put a stop to Croonquist's insults and alleged falsehoods, her in-laws filed a Complaint against her for false light, defamation, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and unjust enrichment and sought injunctive relief. The Complaint was removed to federal district court in New Jersey, and just last week - only eight days before Mother's Day - was dismissed for failing to state an actionable claim against Croonquist.

In a well-reasoned, twenty-one page opinion, United States District Court Judge Mary L. Cooper held that Croonquist's "challenged statements all constitute statements of opinion rather than fact, and thus are not defamatory" under any applicable law. Although it seems obvious that the First Amended would protect Croonquist from any liability for expressing her dislike for her in-laws or mocking the way they sound, the more interesting question is whether she can accuse her mother and sister-in-law of being racist with legal impunity.

Although the Court recognized that the "defendant's characterization of Ms. Edelman and Ms. Zafrin as racist are closer to the type of statement that would subject the plaintiffs to ill will and ridicule among 'right thinking persons,'" the Court ultimately found that the challenged statements "express[ed] the defendant's non-actionable opinion that Ms. Edelman and Ms. Zafrin are racists." The Court emphasized that the Complaint plead Croonquist's articulated basis for her opinion which stemmed from her personal experiences with her in-laws. As such, the Court found that "defendant's characterization, in context, appears personal to her and does not imply that the plaintiffs believe in the subjugation of an entire race."

Notably, however, the Court granted the plaintiffs leave to file an amended complaint by May 31, 2010. As such, it's at least still possible (albeit improbable) that the plaintiffs will be able to state a claim against Croonquist. Accordingly, at least for now, it still remains to be seen who will have the last laugh in this rather unusual family squabble.

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