A federal District Court recently dismissed the defamation claims filed by embattled attorney Michael Avenatti against Fox News and several of its anchors. In its decision, the District Court found that Avenatti’s claims failed to overcome the high hurdle to sustaining defamation claims against a media defendant. In the Court’s opinion, it ruled that the case fell squarely into the longstanding rule that “news outlets are not liable for minor mistakes, especially when reporting on public figures and matters of public concern.”
Avenatti garnered the national spotlight in early 2018 when he represented the adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, who sought to invalidate a non-disclosure agreement regarding her alleged sexual relationship with Trump. Following the filing of these suits, Avenatti became a vocal critic of former President Trump regularly appearing on cable news to criticize Trump and bring attention to Daniels’ suit against the former president. Avenatti’s public image rapidly eroded in late 2018, when news outlets widely reported that he had been arrested in Los Angeles for suspected domestic violence. Though Avenatti’s bail was set, prosecutors never formally charged him.
One such news outlet that covered his arrest was Fox News. The cable news showed ran multiple segments covering his arrest. Avenatti took umbrage with Fox News’ coverage of him and filed a $250 million defamation lawsuit against the cable news network and several of its anchors claiming that the defendants made several false and defamatory statements concerning his arrest during those news segments. Avenatti alleged that the network falsely reported he was charged with domestic violence, when in reality he was arrested but never charged. In an attempt to establish actual malice, Avenatti claimed that the cable news channel intentionally made this mistake as part of a calculated effort to “eliminate him as an adversary and threat to President Donald J. Trump.”
In granting Fox News’ motion, the Court held that Avenatti’s complaint failed to establish nearly every element of claim of defamation claim against a public figure. The court found that several of the allegedly defamatory statements cited in Avenatti’s complaint could not sustain a defamation claim because they were nonactionable statements of opinion. For instance, Avenatti complained that one of the anchors stated that Avenatti was “familiar with bullsh*t.” The Court found that these statements were incapable of being proven right or wrong, and thus, were constitutionally protected statements of opinion.
The Court found several other allegedly defamatory statements deficient because they constituted “rhetorical hyperbole” another well-accepted category of nonactionable statements. The Court noted that such rhetorical hyperbole that Avenatti complained of is “often used on cable news, particularly when politics is involved.” As an example, the Court cited to one allegedly defamatory statement by Fox News host Laura Ingraham that Avenatti was “an arrest waiting to happen.” Ingraham explained that this statement of opinion was based on the fact that Senate judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley made a criminal referral concerning Avenatti for making allegedly false statements to Congress.
The Court dismissed the bulk of the allegedly defamatory statements on the basis that they were substantially true. Minor mistakes are not defamatory, the Court explained. What is important is not whether the minor details of a statement is accurate but whether the gist or sting of the statement is true. The Court rejected Avenatti’s claim that statements that he was charged with felony domestic violence were defamatory because he had only been arrested but never formally charged. The Court acknowledged that while this distinction may make a “difference to lawyers,” it would not to the average listener. Fox’s reporting captured the gist of the facts, the Court concluded, and minor errors does not rise to the standard of “materially false” speech required to state a defamation claim.
The Court also found that Avenatti failed to establish the necessary element of actual malice required to sustain his claims. Because Avenatti is a public figure, the Court found that he was required to plead that the defendants either knew their statements were false or made them with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity. According to the Court, Avenatti only provided “conclusory statements and implausible assertions” concerning actual malice. For instance, the Court discredited Avenatti’s argument that Fox News learned its reporting was false from “legitimate” news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, CNN, MSNBC and others because Avenatti failed to explained what these other news outlets reported that would have casted doubt on Fox News’ own reporting.
The Court also flatly rejected Avenatti’s argument that the news anchors should have conducted additional investigation before reporting on his arrest, noting that even an “extreme departure from professional standards, without more, will not support a finding of actual malice.” Finally, the Court found that Avenatti failed to allege any special damages resulting from the allegedly defamatory statements, a requirement under California’s retraction statute governing defamation cases involving media defendants.
The Court’s full opinion is available online here.
Our Chicago defamation attorneys near Deerfield also represent and prosecute claims on behalf of businesses throughout the Chicago area including in Lisle and Downers Grove who have been unfairly and falsely criticized by consumers and competitors in defamatory publications in the online and offline media. We have successfully represented businesses who have been the victim of competitors setting up false rating websites in order to publish defamatory content about our business clients. Beyond slander and libel law, our Chicago business, commercial, class-action, and consumer litigation lawyers represent individuals, family businesses and enterprises of all sizes in a variety of legal disputes, including disputes among partners and shareholders as well as lawsuits between businesses and consumer rights, auto fraud, and wage claim individual and class action cases. In every case, our goal is to resolve disputes as quickly and successfully as possible, helping business clients protect their investments and get back to business as usual. We serve clients throughout Illinois and the Chicagoland area. You can contact us online here or call us on our locally at 630-333-0333.