A North Texas wedding photographer has been awarded a $1.08 million defamation verdict against a married couple who the jury found posted false statements in a social media campaign after being unhappy about a surprise fee.
A Dallas County jury found Friday that social media posts made by Neely and Andrew Moldovan against photographer Andrea Polito amounted to
ORIGINAL ARTICLE 1/22/15:
The Dallas wedding photographer who charged a newlywed couple for an album “cover” that was not mentioned in the original contract said she has done nothing “illegal, immoral, or unethical” and defended herself in a posting on her website Tuesday.
“By no choice of my own, I have been forced into the national spotlight to be ridiculed and pressured into acquiescing to this couple’s demands to save my business,” longtime photographer Andrea Polito wrote.
Meanwhile, the couple, Andrew and Neely Moldovan, said they have been bombarded with nasty messages on social media, many from other wedding photographers around the country, attacking them for appearing in an NBC 5 News report Friday night.
They also said that someone has made fake profiles on social media using their names and even photos to say things they would never say.
NBC 5 also has received numerous emails and messages on social media, many from photographers, challenging the initial story.
The Moldovans contacted NBC 5 in an email on January 12. Under the subject line, “Help us get our wedding photos we paid for,” the couple asked us to investigate why Polito was charging them an additional fee for an album “cover.”
The contract, called a “wedding services agreement,” was signed on January 3, 2014. It specified that the photographer would provide a “40-page 8.5x12 Storybook Album with up to 80 images” and never made any mention of a fee for the cover.
The basic photography fee was $4,200 but the couple said they paid more than $6,000 total for items, including shooting the rehearsal dinner and an extra few hours of the photographer’s time for the long wedding. They said they agreed to the charges.
Their wedding was in October.
Later, when they went to order their album, they said it was a surprise when Polito wanted to charge them more for an album “cover.”
They said they declined to pay the additional fee “on principle” because the album was already included in the original fee.
The minimum cost of a “jacket” cover was $125 but Polito’s office manager told the couple in an email that a $150 hardback cover “seems to be the more popular choice… and is more durable.”
The Moldovans said they objected because they had already paid for an album.
“An album comes with a cover,” Andrew Moldovan said. “It’s a component of an album. It’s a book.”
EMAILS BETWEEN COUPLE AND PHOTOGRAPHER
On Nov. 20, a few weeks after their wedding, the couple received an email from Polito’s office manager Chaney Haralson.
“The next step is to begin making selections for your Storybook Album!” Haralson wrote. “Attached please find the Storybook Album Order Form.”
Haralson asked the Moldovans to select up to 80 photos out of the hundreds that were taken.
A few weeks later, the Moldovans said they realized there was an additional charge for the album “cover.”
“Chaney, I’m finally getting around to filling this out,” Neely Moldovan wrote on Jan. 8. “Do we pay extra for a cover? Is there not a standard cover it comes with?”
On Jan. 12, Haralson responded: “Your package includes the 40 pages & 80 images portion of the album, but we leave the album cover to be decided on when you actually order the album … Preferences often change.”
Later that day, Andrew Moldovan wrote back: “Can you please give me a call as soon as possible? We have already purchased a package that includes an album. We do not want to spend any more money on special covers.”
At the same time, Moldovan asked for a high-resolution disk with their wedding photos.
A few hours later, the office manager wrote back: “While I am not available for a phone call I can detail your two options moving forward.”
She told the couple they could “forfeit” the album and get the disk or pay for the album cover.
She also said if they didn’t complete their order by Feb. 18, “a $250 archival fee applies.”
Andrew Moldovan responded: “Where in the written contract does it state the album does not include a cover? Why would a company offer an album with no cover?”
Haralson wrote back minutes later: “For lack of any other way to explain, I will repeat my previous emails in saying that the cover portion cost of the album has not yet been purchased. To move forward with the album order, a cover must be purchased.”
Andrew Moldovan fired back: “So in our original contract when we purchased a 40-page Storybook Album, what do you interpret this to mean? Just 40 loose pages with pictures on them? An album by definition is a book with pages in which you put a collection of photographs.”
NBC 5 SEEKS PHOTOGRAPHER’S COMMENT
A short time after interviewing the Moldovans, NBC 5 emailed Polito and asked for a response to the couple’s complaint and invited her to appear in the story in an on-camera interview.
She declined the opportunity to be interviewed.
“We would be more than happy to address any inquiries in writing via email,” she said on Thursday.
“While they have already paid for the cost of the album, they did not pay for the cost of the cover, which is an a-la-carte item due to the variation of covers available,” she wrote.
She said the order form “clearly states that the cover is not included in the wedding package and is an additional charge.”
Asked about the couple’s claim that they did not receive the order form until after the wedding, Polito did not respond, nor did she respond to a follow-up email.
The story aired on NBC 5 News at 10 Friday night and an online version was posted a short time later.
The story was picked up by other websites, including the London Daily Mail, and it quickly drew hundreds of viewer comments.
Both the photographer and the couple said they were bombarded with criticism on social media. Some questioned the fairness of the NBC 5 report.
On her website, Polito said she had to temporarily take down her own Facebook page.
The Moldovans denied making some online comments that were attributed to them and said someone else wrote them after setting up fake online profiles using their names.
In other cases, the Moldovans said someone using the fake profiles “liked” controversial comments they said they did not even see.
In one such comment, Andrew Moldovan appeared to “like” a comment from someone who purported to be a former customer of Polito and wrote, “She gave me AIDS. Photos were okay.”
Polito referred to this in her “open letter” on Tuesday.
“The worst and most humiliating part was that the bride’s husband ‘liked’ the comment,” Polito wrote.
The Moldovans also denied “liking” a comment in another post, which said, “We need an address, an alibi, and large plot of land with no questions.”
Again, the Moldovans said it must have been someone using a fake profile.
“There was never a death threat that either of us have ever seen,” Andrew Moldovan said in an email to NBC 5 on Wednesday.
The Moldovans also denied saying other things attributed to them, including a comment that they wished the story would “go viral.”
“Neither of us ever hoped her business is ruined nor do we even want that,” Andrew Moldovan said Wednesday. “We came to NBC just to get our photos and album. Nothing more.”
They admit they posted on Instagram, “Excited to be on NBC” and “justice is served” shortly after the story ran.
Meanwhile, the Moldovans said they have been inundated with negative comments themselves from people nationwide. Many appear to be wedding photographers, they said.
The couple said they have hired their own lawyers.
WEDDING CONSULTANT INTERVIEWED
As part of the story, NBC 5 interviewed Dallas wedding consultant Donnie Brown.
He was told Polito’s name and agreed to appear on camera.
“Everything should be transparent and it should have been done up front,” he said.
He said he had never heard of a photographer charging extra for an album “cover” that was not mentioned in the contract and thought the charge was improper.
“I can tell you if I had a photographer in my group that did this, they wouldn’t be in my group anymore,” he said in a portion of the interview that did not air.
On Tuesday, Brown posted comments on his Facebook page distancing himself from his comments.
“At the time of the interview I had no idea who they were talking about and didn’t want to know,” he wrote. “I found out after that it was my friend Andrea Polito … I have known Andrea for a long time and have enormous respect for her.”
“I have since had several discussions with her and have found that the couple had misrepresented the most recent status of the situation to the news … Andrea did what she needed to based on her sound business policies and even went above board to make it right.”
Reached by telephone on Wednesday, Brown said he stands by his comments that photographers should not charge extra for an album “cover” that is not disclosed in the contract.
POLITO REFERS QUESTIONS TO LAWYER
In an email to NBC 5 on Wednesday, Polito said she had hired attorney David Wishnew of Dallas and referred questions to him.
“The Moldovans’ story and the statements they have made in numerous outlets have caused me great harm, personally and professionally,” she wrote. “I am a private person and would prefer to be behind the camera and not in front of it.”
Following the story, the Moldovans said they had requests for interviews from Inside Edition and The Dallas Morning News but declined to discuss the dispute with anyone after the NBC 5 story because of the firestorm it created.
Meanwhile, the couple said on Wednesday that they still had not received their photos or any other communication from Polito and hoped to put the matter behind them.
POLITO ATTORNEY’S STATEMENT
Wednesday afternoon, Wishnew asked NBC 5 to delay this follow-up story so his client could issue a statement.
The statement, sent Thursday morning, accuses the Moldovans of engaging in a “public smear campaign” to ruin Polito’s reputation.
“Andrea may not ever be able to repair the damage caused by the Moldovans,” the statement said.
The attorney said his client is considering a lawsuit.
“We will seek justice and do what is necessary to protect Andrea, and are in the process of investigating claims for defamation, business disparagement, and tortuous interference,” he wrote.
Here is a copy of the entire statement.
Asked if Polito plans to change her billing practices so the contract explains the album cover is extra, Wishnew said the cover “was disclosed to Mrs. Moldovan as an a la carte item, and the contract (she) signed clearly indicates the availability of a la carte items for additional cost.”
The emails the Moldovans received from Polito’s office manager, however, indicate there was no version of the album available without an additional charge.
Wishnew also said Polito informed the Moldovans verbally “on multiple occasions” about the extra charge.
The Moldovans insisted they were never told.
Asked if Polito plans on giving the couple their wedding photos, Wishnew said Polito emailed Neely Moldovan hours before the interview to “make concessions and assume the cost of the album cover.”
In a copy of the email which the Moldovans provided to NBC 5, Polito wrote, “Please let me know which cover you would like for your album and we will proceed with your album order.”
Polito never specifically said she would give it to them at no additional cost, which had been the subject of multiple earlier emails.
“Will there be a fee for the cover?” Neely Moldovan asked Polito.
Polito never responded, Moldovan said.
In her email to NBC 5 on Wednesday, in which she referred us to her attorney, Polito said “a follow up story would likely only lead to further coverage of inaccurate and untruthful statements.”
Asked what she considered inaccurate and untruthful in the NBC 5 report, Polito’s attorney declined to answer.
“This is not the forum in which we want to discuss those statements,” he said.