Emotional outbursts, insults, and name-calling are not unusual in a divorce. Parties are likely to exaggerate each other’s misconduct and character flaws. One spouse might even threaten to “tell the world” about horrible misdeeds, insufferable conduct, and gross habits. As divorce attorneys, we advise clients to tamp down on these tendencies, because, as liberating as it might feel to let off steam in the moment, wild accusations about your soon-to-be-ex are not helpful to your case, and could even turn the court against you.
A recent article in The New York Post presents a perfect example of an unhappy wife taking the low road in what certainly looks like an attempt to hurt her estranged husband. Unfortunately for her, she’s now got another legal battle on her hands, as her husband is suing for $7 million in defamation damages.
According to The Post, Jean-Charles Beriau, 47, “was forced to leave his job in shame” because his wife, Dr. Thea D. Shive, 65, whom he’s been trying to divorce since 2020, sent emails to his work account at Merrill Lynch, “falsely claiming he hired hookers, had sexually transmitted diseases, and used drugs.” Mr. Beriau later took a position as a private wealth advisor at Morgan Stanley, but Dr. Shive sent accusatory emails to that address as well, “prompting a probe by the company’s human resources department.”
Dr. Shive’s emails are reported to contain a variety of accusations, insults, and threats, such as:
- “[I’ll] show the huge pile of STD bills you have accumulated during COVID to everyone.”
- “You should use a condom for your own sake. You might want to find a cleaner hooker, as well.”
- “[It] seems like you don’t want a divorce and are dragging it out, to no end. I will never take you back, you are gross. I know you have bipolar disorder and traumatic brain injury and are not capable of rational thought.”
- “[You have] herpes, syphilis, trichomoniasis, and various other problems … There is no greater proof of your severe mental illness than the fact you continue to use my address when you get treatment for STD’s [sic].”
There were also messages to Mr. Beriau’s clients and relatives alleging that he was under SEC investigation for securities fraud.
Such messages don’t do much for Mr. Beriau’s image, and may have damaged his career. He had worked for “more than 15 years at Merrill Lynch as a trader and hedge funder before he claims he was forced to switch jobs in May.”
Mr. Beriau’s attorney noted that the messages went to Mr. Beriau’s company email address, an account that his superiors monitored, and where messages are visible to his assistant and others at the company. It is likely that Dr. Shive, a professional practicing dentistry, knew the communications were not private. Mr. Beriau’s attorney also claims that she knew the accusations were false. Mr. Beriau’s lawyer characterized the emails as “entirely fabricated and false,” adding that Mr. Beriau is “a very patient, very professional gentleman that thought that this would de-escalate, but it didn’t.”
The de-escalation was supposed to come after the court fined Dr. Shive and ordered her to stop communicating with Mr. Beriau. Instead, she seems to have doubled down and gotten into greater legal trouble.
Under New York law, defamation consists of four elements:
- A false statement
- Publication to a third party without privilege or authorization
- Fault amounting to at least negligence
- Resulting special harm or defamation per se
If the facts are as Mr. Beriau’s attorney described them to the court, Dr. Shive has made a false statement against Mr. Beriau through a medium that would expose the statement to third parties. Using the work email was at least negligent, if not a deliberate attempt to reach third parties with the defamatory remarks.
The harm to Mr. Beriau is difficult to measure. He left a job of 15 years, but people move on from employment for a variety of reasons, and he seems to have landed on his feet. Has he lost income? Lost clients? Lost future prospects for advancement? Or does Mr. Beriau come off as the innocent victim of a distraught ex who has lost her composure, not to mention her grip on reality, under the stress of a divorce? Mr. Beriau may be a sympathetic figure in this drama, and thus his reputation may not suffer a bit, much less to the tune of $7 million.
However, Mr. Beriau might not have to demonstrate actual harm to prevail in a defamation lawsuit and collect damages. Defamation per se is a legal term that refers to false statements which are in themselves defamatory, causing reputational loss, whether or not that translates into financial losses and a dip in social status. Such statements fall into four categories:
- Statements that someone has engaged in behavior incompatible with the ethical or professional conduct of his business trade
- Allegations that someone has engaged in criminal activity
- Statements that someone has engaged in sexual misconduct
- Allegations that a person has an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease
In this respect, Dr. Shive has hit the superfecta, going four for four. The allegation of fraud is an ethics violation and a crime, hiring prostitutes qualifies as sexual misconduct, and the litany of STDs covers the loathsome disease component. Dr. Shive may be forced to pay damages, even if they are nominal.
But the fallout for Dr. Shive probably doesn’t end there. Tasteless accusations, regardless of their veracity, have a way of backfiring on the accuser. There are certainly dental patients out there who will read the story in The Post. Dr. Shive may find them more likely to say, “Eew” than “Aah.”