Articles Posted in Defamation, Libel and Slander

A federal judge recently dismissed a defamation lawsuit filed by former Playboy model Karen McDougal against Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The lawsuit concerned statements Carlson had made about McDougal during his show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” which airs on the Fox News Channel. The judge ultimately granted the motion to dismiss filed by Fox News after determining that the allegedly defamatory statements constituted only nonactionable opinion and rhetorical hyperbole as a matter of law.

The statements at issue in the lawsuit were made by Carlson on a segment of his show that aired on December 10, 2018. During that show, Carlson discussed alleged payments made to McDougal in an effort to keep her from discussing her alleged affair with President Trump back in 2006. Carlson did not refer to McDougal by name when making the comments, though at one point during the show her picture was displayed on-screen.

The opinion by U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil quotes at length from the transcript of the show in which Carlson made the allegedly libelous statements. From the several minutes of dialogue reproduced in the opinion, the Court identified two statements that McDougal cited in her complaint as giving rise to a claim of defamation per se. The first statement was that McDougal “approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give [her] money.” The second statement claimed that McDougal’s actions were “a classic case of extortion,” which is a crime. Nearly a year after these statements aired, McDougal filed a single count complaint for defamation per se in a New York state court which Fox News subsequently removed to federal court.

In its motion to dismiss, Fox News argued that the lawsuit was an attempt to silence the media from discussing matters of public concern. It argued that the defamation per se claim failed because the statements constituted nonactionable opinion and rhetorical hyperbole that is protected by the First Amendment. It also argued that the complaint failed to allege facts to support an inference that Fox News acted with actual malice, a necessary requirement when the plaintiff is a public figure. Continue reading ›

Freedom of speech and defamation law are sometimes in tension with each other. Freedom of speech holds that people should be free to say what they want without fear of reprisal. Defamation law holds that people can be held liable and forced to pay for harm caused by false statements about a person or business. As libel attorneys, we have written at length about the limits of libel law liability and the interplay between defamation law and the First Amendment. A recent opinion from a New York state court exemplifies the tension between these two concepts.

In Rowbotham v. Wachenfeld, the plaintiff Jim Rowbotham brought suit against Jeff Wachenfeld and Wachenfeld’s employer, West Hampton True Value hardware store. In his complaint, Rowbotham alleged that the defendant Wachenfeld posted a defamatory comment on the Facebook page of an advertising agency with whom Rowbotham was professionally affiliated. According to the complaint, the comment stated that “Jim [Rowbotham] is a crook. Worst company to do business with.” Rowbotham claims that his professional affiliation with the advertising agency was damaged as a result of Wachenfeld’s comment.

Rowbotham retained an attorney who sent a written request for the comment to be removed. Wachenfeld allegedly did remove the comment sometime in May 2017, replacing it with a five-star review though Wachenfeld denied having posted the comment in the first place. Wachenfeld claimed that anyone at the West Hampton True Value store could have left the comment as all ten computers at the store were logged into his personal Facebook account, making it available to anyone. Continue reading ›

After a disgruntled client posted a review on Yelp page of his former attorney, and the attorney responded, the attorney sued the client for defamation. The client responded by filing counterclaims for defamation, breach of fiduciary duty, and legal malpractice. The district court dismissed the client’s counterclaims for breach of fiduciary duty and malpractice while denying the attorney’s motion to dismiss the defamation counterclaim. The court then denied cross-motions for summary judgment, finding that genuine disputes of fact remained.

Alisa Levin is an attorney licensed in Illinois. Paul Abramson is a resident of California Abramson hired Levin to assist a different attorney with writing services in an Illinois lawsuit. Abramson alleged that he hired Levin as a ghostwriter, and her name was not to be included in any filings. Abramson paid Levin a $4,000 retainer and signed a written retainer agreement specifying that Levin would charge $315 an hour for her time.

In December 2015, Levin sent Abramson an invoice for 37.5 hours of her time, which resulted in fees of $9,167 over and above the $4,000 retainer. Abramson responded and disputed the amount, but Levin charged Abramson’s credit card later that day. Abramson then terminated Levin shortly after that by asking her to stop work in an email. Abramson then made complaints to the Chicago Bar Association and Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee. Abramson also initiated a chargeback dispute with his bank, but after an investigation the bank returned the funds to Levin in June 2016. In 2017, Abramson began invoicing Levin’s firm and had a collection agency make calls to Levin. Continue reading ›

After a dispute occurred between Chairman and members of the board of directors of closely held corporation, Chairman removed several members from the board and sued them for civil conspiracy, tortious interference, libel, and breach of fiduciary duty. The Delaware Court of Chancery granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding that the plaintiffs failed to allege facts sufficient to prove civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty, or tortious interference. The court also determined that the Chairman was a limited-purpose public figure and the plaintiffs therefore did not meet the heightened pleading standard for their libel claim.

In 2010, Todd O’Gara founded Wanu, a Delaware corporation based in California that produces nutrient-infused water. In 2014, O’Gara stepped down as CEO, but continued as Wanu’s President, Chairman, and largest stockholder. In 2017 O’Gara executed voting agreements and irrevocable proxies with a number of Wanu stockholders. The voting agreements, combined with his shares, gave O’Gara control over approximately fifty-two percent of the voting power in Wanu.

In March 2018, a majority of Wanu’s board of directors voted to remove Wanu’s CEO, Steve Dollase. In April 2018, Dollase and two Wanu stockholders, Jay Binkley and Greg Hunter, raised allegations against O’Gara. The three alleged that O’Gara had inhibited Dollase’s ability to perform as Wanu’s CEO in a variety of ways. The three also alleged that O’Gara’s business expenses and spending were excessive and unsustainable and that O’Gara had executed an unauthorized certificate issuing several hundred thousand shares to himself.

In May 2018, Wanu engaged independent counsel to investigate the allegations. The investigation concluded in July 2018 and its findings, that Dollase was informed or had the ability to be informed about many of the issues he complained about; that his allegations were motivated by his dislike of O’Gara’s management style and personality; that he was generally not well-liked as a leader; and that his management style created tension within the office, were reported to the board. After this, the Dollase faction raised new allegations against O’Gara, namely that O’Gara made misstatements about his educational background in various documents prepared for prospective investors in 2014 and 2015. Wanu engaged another investigator to look into the new allegations. This investigator summarized his findings in August 2018, stating that he was unable to confirm that O’Gara had in fact received degrees from the various educational institutions he claimed to have attended. Continue reading ›

A couple of weeks ago, President Donald Trump made history as the first sitting president to file a defamation lawsuit against a media outlet. President Trump’s reelection campaign filed a lawsuit in New York state court alleging that The New York Times published defamatory statements in a 2019 opinion editorial concerning claims of a quid pro quo between Russia and then-candidate Trump’s 2016 campaign. Suits like this involving protected political speech are nearly impossible to win.

The article, entitled “The Real Trump-Russia Quid Pro Quo,” was written by a former New York Times executive editor. The article concluded that the Trump campaign and Russian officials “had an overarching deal: the quid of help in the campaign against Hillary Clinton for the quo of a new pro-Russian foreign policy.” According to the complaint, this conclusion “is false” and “knowing it would misinform and mislead its own readers,” The New York Times made the decision to publish the piece anyways.

The President’s campaign alleges that the purportedly defamatory article fails to offer any proof of its claim of a quid pro quo. Instead, the complaint alleges, the article “selectively refers to previously-reported contacts between a Russian lawyer and persons connected with the [President’s 2016] Campaign” and insinuates that “these contacts must have resulted in a quid pro quo or a deal.” Moreover, the complaint goes on to allege that the article failed to “acknowledge that, in fact, there had been extensive reporting, including in The [New York] Times, that the meetings and contacts . . . did not result in any quid pro quo or deal between the Campaign and Russia, or anyone connected with either of them.” Continue reading ›

President Trump’s reelection campaign has filed its third defamation lawsuit against a major media outlet in less than two weeks. The news organization named in the latest libel suit is CNN. As with the previous lawsuits that we have written about, the claims of defamation stem from statements contained in an opinion piece concerning alleged cooperation between Russia and Trump to assist the latter’s presidential bid.

The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta, accuses CNN of publishing a libelous opinion piece on its website CNN.com in June 2019 the topic of which was Russia’s efforts to influence the United States presidential election in 2016. The author of the piece at issue, entitled “Soliciting dirt on your opponents from a foreign government is a crime. Mueller should have charged Trump campaign officials with it,” is Larry Noble, former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission and an outspoken campaign finance advocate.

The opinion editorial, which at the time of writing is still available on CNN’s website, contains a disclaimer that Noble is a CNN contributor but the commentary is solely his own opinion, though it is unclear whether this disclaimer appeared at the time the piece was originally published. The article focuses first on the 2016 election and laying out a case for Noble’s belief that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report did not exonerate President Trump from claims of collusion with Russia in that election. The article then shifts focus to the upcoming election and speculates about what role if any Russia will play in influencing the election. According to the complaint, in discussing the upcoming presidential election, Noble falsely claimed that the President’s reelection campaign “assessed the potential risks and benefits of again seeking Russia’s help in 2020 and has decided to leave that option on the table.”

A large portion of the complaint is dedicated to attempting to establish that CNN acted with actual malice in publishing Noble’s piece. The alleged evidence of this bias spans many pages and paragraphs in the complaint. According to the suit, there is “extensive evidence” that both CNN and Noble “are extremely biased against the Campaign.” Continue reading ›

Linda Fairstein was once lauded as a champion of women and victims of sexual assault when she was prosecuting the case against the Central Park Five in 1989 and after she succeeded in getting them convicted. Fairstein was in charge of the sex crimes division of the Manhattan district attorney’s office at the time the high-profile case was being investigated and prosecuted, but since all the convictions of the Central Park Five were overturned, the narrative on Fairstein’s career has been similarly upended.

In 2002, Matias Reyes, a man who had already been convicted of murder and a series of rapes, confessed to raping a white woman as she was out jogging in Central Park 13 years earlier. The problem was that Reyes was not one of the five black and Latino men who had been accused and convicted of the crime, and his confession led to the public questioning of the role racism played in how the New York City Police Department and Manhattan district attorney’s office handled the case. Continue reading ›

As the sexual assault trial of Harvey Weinstein gets underway, people are reminded of the impact of the #MeToo movement on our justice system. We are also reminded of another truth that many victims of sexual assault know all too well, waiting to speak out can mean that the guilty party is immune from criminal prosecution because of the short statute of limitations periods on sexual assault in many states. Victims, unable to pursue justice directly, have begun in increasing numbers turning to the centuries-old tool of defamation lawsuits, opening an alternative legal battleground for dealing with accusations of sexual misconduct.

No one exemplifies this growing trend more than the actress, Ashley Judd. In 2017, Ms. Judd raised allegations about a sexual assault she claims to have suffered at the hands of Weinstein some twenty years earlier. However, like many of the claims of sexual misconduct leveled against Weinstein in the months that followed, Ms. Judd’s claims were too old to prosecute. Undeterred, Ms. Judd sued the producer for defamation in 2018 after reading that Mr. Weinstein’s studio, Miramax, had described Ms. Judd as a “nightmare to work with.”

Ms. Judd’s slander suit is hardly the only high profile defamation suit to come out of the #MeToo era. This year alone several highly publicized defamation cases involving President Trump, the Senate candidate Roy Moore and the actor Johnny Depp are expected to go to trial.

In one such case, Summer Zervos, a former contestant of the president’s popular reality TV show “The Apprentice,” filed a defamation lawsuit against President Trump for his comments on the campaign trail that her accusations of unwanted kissing and groping were fabricated. The president has sought to avoid the suit by arguing that he cannot be sued in state court while in office. E. Jean Carroll filed a similar lawsuit against President Trump after he accused her of lying about his raping her to increase sales of her new book.

While the facts of each libel suit differ, many #MeToo plaintiffs are basing their suits on statements by the men they accused calling them liars. For many plaintiffs, suing for defamation provides them the opportunity to air the facts of what happened years ago, even if they are unable to hold the accused criminally liable. On the other hand, men like Mr. Depp are using defamation suits defensively to preserve their reputations against allegations from women, in his case, his ex-wife Amber Heard, who accused him of domestic abuse. In another case, writer Stephen Elliott sued Moira Donegan, the creator of a widely circulated list of men accused of sexual misconduct that included his name. Continue reading ›

For the second time in a week, President Trump’s reelection campaign filed a defamation lawsuit against a major media outlet. The target of this lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., is The Washington Post. The allegedly defamatory statements at issue in the lawsuit come from two opinion pieces published by the Washington Post in June 2019.

One of the articles, entitled “Trump: I can win reelection with just my base,” was written by opinion writer for The Washington Post, Paul Waldman. In his piece, Waldman quipped that “who knows what sort of aid Russia and North Korea will give to the Trump campaign, now that he has invited them to offer their assistance?” The President’s reelection campaign alleges in the libel complaint that the statement is false and defamatory because no one associated with the campaign has made any statements inviting assistance from Russia or North Korea in the upcoming election.

The other article, entitled “Trump just invited another Russian attack. Mitch McConnell is making one more likely,” was also penned by an opinion writer at the Washington Post. This second piece “contained the defamatory claim that Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that the Campaign ‘tried to conspire with’ a ‘sweeping and systematic’ attack by Russia against the 2016 United States presidential election,” the complaint alleges. The complaint argues that statements concerning the conclusion of the Mueller report are false and that “[i]n fact, Special

Counsel Mueller’s Report . . . came to the opposite conclusion.” Trump’s campaign argues that the Mueller Report actually concluded that there was no conspiracy between then-candidate Trump’s campaign and Russia or any coordination with Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election. Continue reading ›

A private investigator involved in a controversial investigation of a wrongful conviction, who was later alleged to have employed improper investigative techniques in a book and a documentary, sued several defendants for defamation and false light. The appellate panel reversed the trial court in part, finding that the investigator’s claims were not time-barred.

In 1982, Jerry HIllard and Marilyn Green were murdered in Washington Park in Chicago. Anthony Porter was convicted for the murders and was sentenced to the death penalty. Professor David Protess and other members of Northwestern University’s Innocence Project investigated the case and identified another suspect, Alstory Simon. At some point, members of the Innocence Project came to believe that Simon and not Porter had really committed the murders.

Paul Ciolino was employed as a private investigator and did work for the Innocence Project. Ciolino and another investigator traveled to Milwaukee to meet with Simon. Simon claims that Ciolino pretended to be a police officer from Illinois, and that Ciolino was armed with a handgun at the time of their meeting. Ciolino told Simon that the Innocence Project had sworn statements from Simon’s ex-wife, Inez Jackson, and from an eyewitness to the murders. Ciolino also showed Simon a video that the Innocence Project had made with a paid actor pretending to be the eyewitness. Simon also alleged that Ciolino persuaded him to confess to the murders by promising him that he would receive a sentence of only a few years in prison, and that he would receive money from book and movie deals because of the intense publicity of the case.

The Innocence Project eventually succeeded in freeing Porter from prison, using Simon’s videotaped confession as well as statements from Simon’s ex-wife and her nephew, Walter Jackson. The Cook County State’s Attorney then indicted Simon for the murders. Simon eventually pled guilty and was sentenced to 37 years in prison. Still, many people felt that Simon was not actually responsible for the murders and began investigations of their own to determine whether he was innocent of the crimes.

Inez Jackson and Walter Jackson eventually recanted their statements. The two explained they had implicated Simon in their statements based on promises from Protess. They alleged that Protess and his team had given them food, cash, alcohol, and other things of value to induce them to make statements. Northwestern University later conducted an internal investigation into the journalistic and investigative practices of the Innocence Project under Protess, and he was separated from the University as a result. The Cook County State’s Attorney then investigated Simon’s case and determined that, due to the misconduct on the parts of Protess and Ciolino, the conviction was so tainted that it could not stand. Simon was eventually released from prison after serving 15 years. Continue reading ›

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