Articles Posted in Defamation, Libel and Slander

A scandal at a university’s innocence project led to a defamation suit by one of the project’s former employees against a writer of a book and documentary filmmakers who accused the employee of engaging in criminal behavior in pursuit of a false murder confession. The employee’s defamation claims were initially found to be untimely by the trial court, but the Illinois appellate court reversed the decision. The Illinois Supreme Court took up the appeal of the filmmaker’s and affirmed the decision of the appellate court, finding that each new showing of the documentary film to a limited audience retriggered the statute of limitations, making the claims timely.

Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (Innocence Project) sought to exonerate Anthony Porter for the 1982 murders of Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green. Those working at the project suspected that a different individual, Alstory Simon, had committed the murders. Paul Ciolino, a private investigator, worked at the Innocence Project. Ciolino obtained a videotaped confession from Simon after allegedly promising Simon that he would be represented by an attorney whom Ciolino knew.

Porter’s conviction was vacated and, after being pressured by his attorney, Simon pled guilty to the murders and was sentenced to 37 years in prison. Some people remained unconvinced that Simon had actually committed the murders. Simon unsuccessfully filed a pro se petition for postconviction relief. After obtaining representation, a second petition was filed on Simon’s behalf asserting actual innocence. That petition contained new evidence that two witnesses who had implicated Simon had recanted their statements. The witnesses stated that their earlier statements implicating Simon were induced by promises to them made by David Protess of the Innocence Project. Continue reading ›

Every show needs a hero and a villain, and when it comes to reality TV, producers can manipulate what gets shown and what doesn’t to make someone out to be a villain. According to a recent defamation lawsuit filed by Donovan Eckhardt, he is the alleged victim of the production company and TV network that aired “Windy City Rehab”, a reality TV show in which he and his partner, Alison Victoria Gramenos, bought run-down homes, fixed them up, and sold them at a profit to enchanted buyers.

The show started out well enough for Eckhardt, with the show portraying him and Victoria as best friends, but as the show continued to experience backlash from angry neighbors and disgruntled buyers, the relationship quickly soured.

According to the lawsuit, Big Table Media, the show’s production company, and HGTV scripted Eckhardt as untrustworthy and gave the impression that he stole money. The defamation lawsuit alleges the intention was to create a bad guy in order to boost ratings.

The defamation complaint is 23 pages long and involves Eckhardt going through each episode of the second season of the hit show and pointing out all the allegedly false scenes he claims were manufactured to make him look like a villain.

An example is one scene in which Victoria tries to figure out what Eckhardt could have done with construction funds for a project, but Eckhardt alleges nothing in that scene is true. Instead, he claims the show is far from reality, and is actually highly scripted and choreographed to create a story, even where he says there isn’t one.

According to the lawsuit, Eckhardt and Victoria spoke regularly about every aspect of each project and that, far from being left in the dark, Victoria was intimately involved when it came to creating every aspect of a budget for each project. Continue reading ›

Until recently, falsely accusing someone of being gay was considered defamatory per se in New York. Recently however, a New York appellate court broke with decades of precedent in ruling that such a statement no longer constitutes defamation per se. In so ruling the court cited recent transformations in the law and cultural attitudes towards homosexuality as justification for changing the standard as it relates to accusations of being gay.

Defamatory statements fall into one of two distinct categories: defamation per se and defamation per quod. When a statement is considered to be defamatory per se, it is considered so obviously harmful to one’s reputation that proof of harm or actual damages are not required.

The plaintiff in the case was a former elder in a Seventh Day Adventist church in New York. According to the complaint, the plaintiff alleged that he was defamed by the pastor of the defendant church when the pastor told members of the congregation that the plaintiff was a homosexual who viewed gay pornography on the church’s computer. The complaint further alleged that the pastor made the statements to influence the church to vote to relieve the plaintiff of his responsibilities at the church and to terminate his membership. The former elder responded by suing the pastor and the church to recover damages for defamation per se. Continue reading ›

The longstanding one-year statute of limitations for defamation actions in Illinois could be on its way out. The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to weigh in on the question of whether the deadline for filing libel lawsuits needs to be revisited to account for the explosion of online content in the twenty-first century. Defamation and libel attorneys throughout Illinois will be eagerly following this case as it presents potentially the largest change to defamation law in recent memory.

On January 14, the Illinois Supreme Court heard arguments in a defamation case brought by Paul J. Ciolino, a private investigator at the center of the Alstory Simon story, one of Chicago’s most prominent alleged wrongful murder conviction cases. The case is just the most recent installment of a long-running saga that has gripped the attention of Chicagoans for decades. The First District Court of Appeals described the case as follows in its opinion:

This case stems from one of the most famous murder cases in the recent history of our state. The background of the case is gripping. It is no real surprise then that the events surrounding the case have spurred a movie, a book, and other media attention.

In 1982, Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green were murdered in Washington Park in Chicago. Anthony Porter was convicted for the murders and sentenced to the death penalty. Members of Northwestern University’s Innocence Project took an interest in the case and began reviewing evidence gathered by Porter’s defense attorney during the case. They determined that another man, Simon, was in the area of the murders close to the time that they were committed. Believing that Simon committed the murders, they started collecting evidence in an attempt to build their case that Simon, not Porter, was the murder. Continue reading ›

An Illinois Appellate Court breathed new life into a petition by Chicago Bears legend Richard Dent to learn the identities of the anonymous individuals who he claims published defamatory statements about him. According to Dent’s Illinois Supreme Court Rule 224 petition, these defamatory statements ultimately cost Dent and his business a marketing contract with the energy supplier Constellation NewEnergy.

Dent played as a defensive end in the NFL from 1983-1997, including 12 seasons with the Chicago Bears. He was the MVP in the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl victory, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011. Also named as a petitioner in the case was Dent’s company, RLD Resources, which Dent founded after his football career ended.

According to the petition, three unidentified people allegedly defamed Dent by accusing him of groping a woman and engaging in drunken behavior. These allegedly defamatory comments prompted an investigation by Constellation that ultimately caused the company to terminate its contractual arrangements with Dent.

The case dates back to September 2018 when two attorneys representing the energy supplier visited Dent’s office and told him that certain allegations had been made against him. Specifically, they allegedly told Dent, a female Constellation employee had accused Dent of making inappropriate sexual comments to her and groping her at two separate Constellation-sponsored events.

The attorneys also informed Dent that a man complained to Constellation that he had observed Dent at a hotel in Chicago collecting materials for a Constellation-sponsored event and that Dent was drunk and disorderly at that time. The attorneys refused to reveal the identities of these individuals but informed Dent that they would be reviewing the energy supplier’s contracts with Dent based on these allegations. In October 2018, Constellation sent Dent and his company a notice that it was terminating all contracts with them. Continue reading ›

Following a trial that spanned over 16 days, the UK’s High Court dismissed Johnny Depp’s libel claim against The Sun newspaper over an article that accused Depp of being a “wife beater.” The judge presiding over the trial, Justice Andrew Nichol, issued a 129-page, 585-paragraph opinion thoroughly detailing the allegedly defamatory statements and the trial. Justice Nicol ultimately held that Depp had proved the necessary elements for a libel action, but also found that The Sun had proven that the article in which the allegedly defamatory statements appeared was “substantially true.”

In April 2018, The Sun published an article originally titled “GONE POTTY: How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife-beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?” The article’s title was later changed to “GONE POTTY How Can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film after assault claim?” The article asserted among other things that Depp was violent towards his ex-wife Amber Heard throughout the course of their relationship. In response to the story, Depp filed a defamation lawsuit against The Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers Ltd., and executive editor, Dan Wootton. Continue reading ›

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 ›

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