Articles Posted in Public Figures

In every defamation case, it’s necessary to determine whether the plaintiff should be treated as a public figure, a public official, or a regular Average Joe. This is because “public” plaintiffs face a much higher burden of proof than “private” plaintiffs. A private plaintiff normally only needs to prove that a defamatory statement was made with negligence in regard to whether the statement was true or false, whereas a public plaintiff generally needs to show that the defendant acted with malice, which is much more difficult to prove than negligence. There are many justifications for the discrepancy, but the most frequent cited are that (a) public plaintiffs voluntarily assumed the spotlight, and they should know that having people talk loosely about them comes with the territory, and (b) by virtue of their notoriety, public plaintiffs have more opportunities to rebut defamatory statements. Courts sometimes use the terms “public figure” and “public official” interchangeably, but they are conceptually different, and different considerations determine whether a plaintiff should be treated as one or the other.

The main distinguishing feature is that public officials are not necessarily attention-seeking, and as a result, they are not always treated as “public” plaintiffs who would need to show malice in order to prevail in a defamation action.
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The case of AdvanFort Co. v. International Registries, Inc. involves a defamation claim brought by AdvanFort and its owners against their former attorney, maritime lawyer John Cartner, and The Maritime Executive, a maritime industry journal. According to the complaint, shortly after AdvanFort complained about getting billed over $28,000 for less than two weeks’ worth of legal services, Cartner wrote an article entitled “Self-Described AdvanFort ‘Billionaire’ May Not Be” in which he made numerous assertions allegedly calculated to lower AdvanFort in the estimation of the maritime community. Cartner responded that his article amounted to mere rhetorical hyperbole, which is not actionable, and that the article was not written with malice.

Defamation requires either a provably false factual assertion or a statement that can be reasonably interpreted as stating or implying actual facts about a person. Rhetorical hyperbole is protected under the First Amendment and cannot form the basis of a defamation claim. (See Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 17, 21). The Fourth Circuit has described rhetorical hyperbole as a statement that “might appear to make an assertion, but a reasonable reader or listener would not construe that assertion seriously.” (See Schnare v. Ziessow, 104 Fed. App’x 847, 851 (4th Cir. 2004)).

In analyzing whether a particular statement will be actionable as defamation in Virginia, it’s usually helpful to review recent cases to see how actual judges have ruled. It’s often not entirely clear whether a statement is an assertion of fact, an expression of opinion, or rhetorical hyperbole. Here’s how Judge O’Grady ruled with respect to the various statements at issue in this article:
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California lawyer Tamara Green has accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. Bill Cosby, speaking through his publicist, characterized the accusation as “discredited” and as amounting to “nothing.” First question: is Cosby calling Green a liar? Second question: is it defamatory to call someone a liar if they’re actually telling the truth? Third question: is a celebrity personally liable for defamatory statements made by that person’s attorney or publicist? Ms. Green believes the answers to all three questions are YES, judging by the fact that she sued Mr. Cosby for defamation a few days ago in Massachusetts federal court. Personally, I’m not so sure.

Let’s begin at the beginning: what did Cosby actually say? In defamation actions, it is important to know the exact words used, lest liability be based on embellishments or mischaracterizations of those words by the plaintiff’s attorney. First of all, it wasn’t Cosby himself who responded to Ms. Green’s allegations. Her lawsuit is based on statements made by his attorney and publicist. Back in 2005, when Ms. Green first went public with her accusations in an appearance on the Today Show (video below), Mr. Cosby’s lawyer at the time, Walter M. Phillips, Jr., allegedly issued a statement calling the accusations “absolutely false” and saying that the alleged assault “did not happen in any way, shape, or form.”

Years later, in a Newsweek interview published in February 2014, Cosby’s publicist (claimed to be David Brokaw) gave Newsweek this statement: “This is a 10-year-old, discredited accusation that proved to be nothing at the time, and is still nothing.” As if to demonstrate the reason we have a requirement here in Virginia to plead the actual words used, Ms. Green does not include this quotation in her complaint. Instead, she characterizes the statement as follows: “in an effort to continue the public branding of Plaintiff as a liar, Defendant Cosby through Brokaw stated explicitly, stated in effect, stated by innuendo, implied, and/or insinuated, that Defendant Cosby’s drugging and sexual assault against Plaintiff Green never occurred, and therefore that Plaintiff Green lied and was a liar.”
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If Sally Ferreira‘s allegations are true, she has a valid claim for defamation per se against rapper 50 Cent which could possibly result in a seven-figure damages award. Ms. Ferreira, an actress, model, and dancer, sued 50 Cent (real name Curtis J. Jackson, III) for defamation and emotional distress in federal court in New York, making the following allegations:

Ms. Ferreira has appeared in music videos for various artists such as 50 Cent, Kanye West, Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliot, and Lil’ Kim. In March, Ms. Ferreira participated in 50 Cent’s music video for the song “Big Rich Town,” filmed on the subway in the Bronx. Shortly after the video shoot, leaked photographs of Ms. Ferreira and 50 Cent taken during the shoot appeared on Hip Hop Weekly and MediaTakeOut.com, along with commentary speculating (erroneously) that the two were spotted riding the subway together and that they were romantically involved.
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When a defamatory statement is made about a public figure, a plaintiff must prove that the statement was published with actual malice, i.e. with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. Mere proof that a defendant failed to investigate the truth of a statement is not enough to show actual malice, and where a defendant relies on a responsible source in making a statement, he has not been grossly negligent, much less malicious. However, evidence of intent to avoid the truth can be sufficient to satisfy the actual malice standard. The Second Circuit recently addressed these issues in Dongguk University v. Yale University.

When Shin Jeong-ah applied for a position as an art history professor at the prestigious Dongguk University in South Korea, she stated that she held a Ph.D. from Yale University in Art History, and she submitted a document on Yale University letterhead that purported to be a certification of her degree. The certification contained an exact reproduction of Yale Associate Dean Pamela Schirmeister’s signature but misspelled the name and also misspelled the word “century” in Shin’s listed concentration – Twentieth Century Art. Nevertheless, Dongguk hired Shin and sent Yale an Inquiry Letter with the certification attached seeking to verify its authenticity. Dean Schirmeister received the letter and responded via fax “confirming that the attached letter [the certification] was issued by the Yale Graduate School and signed by me.”

Two years later, Dongguk became suspicious that Shin may have plagiarized her dissertation. An investigation revealed that Yale had no record of the dissertation and that in fact Shin had not received a Ph.D. from Yale. The Korean press latched on to the story, and Yale’s Deputy Counsel Susan Carney and Dean Edward Barnaby began referring all Shin-related media inquiries to its Office of Public Affairs.

Anti-SLAPP laws provide an expedited procedure for dismissing lawsuits that are filed primarily to inhibit the valid exercise of constitutionally protected speech. A defendant seeking to avail herself of an Anti-SLAPP statute must show that the allegedly defamatory statements concern a public matter or a matter of public interest. Not all statements about a person in the public eye qualify. Rather, the subject of the statement must be involved in a public controversy or be so famous that her involvement in a private dispute is a matter of public interest. A California appellate court recently addressed this issue in Albanese v. Menounos and concluded that some celebrity disputes are just none of our business and don’t require the protection of the anti-SLAPP statute.

Lindsay Albanese is a celebrity stylist who worked at NBC for several years as a stylist for Maria Menounos of Access Hollywood fame. Albanese contends that on one occasion after leaving NBC, when Albanese and Menounos ran into each other at an event, Menounos loudly proclaimed that “Dolce and Gabbana won’t lend to me anymore because they said you never returned anything.” Menounos also allegedly told someone at the party afterwards that Albanese had stolen from her while she worked at NBC.

Albanese sued Menounos for defamation, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, arguing that the statements were made with malice, actual knowledge of their falsity, and with specific intent to injure Albanese’s reputation and employment. Her complaint seeks damages for injury to her personal, business and professional reputation, embarrassment, humiliation, severe emotional distress, shunning, anguish, fear, loss of employment and employability and economic loss in the form of lost wages and future earnings. Menounos moved to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP law.

Well-known climate scientist Michael Mann made good on his threat to sue the National Review and columnist Mark Steyn for defamation based on statements made online questioning Mann’s global warming research. In response, the defendants filed a special motion to dismiss under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP statute, arguing that the online statements were made in furtherance of the right of advocacy on an issue of public interest. The court found that the anti-SLAPP statute did apply but nevertheless denied the motion.

Mann is a professor of meteorology and the Director of the Early System Science Center at Penn State. He is well known for his research on global warming and has published papers and books on the subject. The University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) exchanged emails with Mann which were later misappropriated. In one email, a CRU scientist referred to Mann’s “nature trick” of adding in real temperatures for the last twenty years and from 1961 to “hide the decline.” Upon discovery of the emails, the University of East Anglia investigated the matter and concluded that the honesty and rigor of the CRU scientists was not in doubt but that the email referencing Mann’s “nature trick” was misleading.

In 2010, Penn State initiated an investigation of Mann and the CRU emails. The investigatory committee was comprised entirely of Penn State faculty members. Based on an interview with Mann, the committee cleared Mann of three of four charges against him. The last charge involved an allegation that Mann’s research might deviate Mann.jpgfrom accepted norms. The committee interviewed an MIT professor who was critical of Mann’s work and later expressed dismay with the scope of the investigation and the committee’s analysis of the CRU emails.

Makini R. Chaka is an owner of Remy Enterprise Group, LLC (“Remy”), an entity that arranges and coordinates logistics for celebrity appearances at public and private events. When Remy arranges a celebrity appearance, either the venue or the celebrity pays Remy a portion of the fee paid to the celebrity. Remy’s clients include professional athletes, music recording artists and other well-known entertainers.

According to a new lawsuit filed in District of Columbia federal court, Washington Redskin tight end Frederick Davis has described Chaka as a “madam” and “pimpette” who procures prostitutes for professional athletes. In her Complaint, Chaka contends that Davis also insinuated that she is violent, dishonest and an extortionist. Chaka claims that Davis said as much to Chaka’s clients and potential clients, and has sued him for defamation, invasion of privacy, tortious interference with contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

To falsely identify someone as a “madam” or “pimp” may be defamatory, but much will depend on the precise words used and the context in which the statement was made. Not long ago, motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel sued ESPN when they published a picture of him with his arms around two women (one of whom was his wife) and the caption, “Evel Knievel proves that you’re never too old to be a pimp.” Evel claimed the caption was defamatory because he was not actually soliciting prostitution and his wife was not a prostitute. The Ninth Circuit held that the statement was not actionable, based primarily on the fact it was published on an extreme sports website full of lighthearted, jocular content targeted at a youthful audience. In other words, the court found that a reasonable reader would likely not interpret the “pimp” statement literally.

Attorney Ephraim Ugwuonye filed a defamation action against Omoyele Sowore, founder of Saharareporters.com, based on articles appearing on that website. Having previously been found in another case to be a public figure, Ugwuonye was required to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the statements at issue were (1) defamatory; (2) false; and (3) made with actual malice. Public figures are required to prove that the defendant published a false statement with actual knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for its truth. In this particular case, Mr. Ugwuonye was unable to meet that burden and the court entered summary judgment in favor of Mr. Sowore.

The statements at issue concerned real estate transactions in which Ugwuonye represented the Nigerian Embassy. The article claimed that Ugwuonye withheld the Embassy’s $1.5 million IRS tax refund due from the sales because the Nigerian government owed him legal fees for representation in other litigation. The article also commented on past professional misconduct proceedings against Ugwuonye and referred to Ugwuonye’s “professional shadiness.”

The court found that prior to writing the article, Sowore investigated public records, researched cases involving Ugwuonye and also spoke to Ugwuonye by phone. Ugwuonye admitted that he withheld the tax refund as a fee to compensate him for legal work. The court found that statements that were not disputed could not have been Generic gavel.jpgmade with actual malice. Additionally, Ugwuonye did not submit any evidence that the statement regarding Ugwuonye’s past professional misconduct proceeding was made with actual malice, and because the statement was substantially accurate, he could not overcome the qualified privilege for fair and substantially accurate reports on legal proceedings. Finally, Ugwuonye did not offer evidence that the reference to “professional shadiness” was done with actual malice, and it also amounted to non-actionable opinion and privileged reporting.

Statements made in the course of litigation by parties to the case are absolutely privileged and cannot form the basis of a defamation action. At the same time, reporters enjoy a “fair report” privilege that allows them to report and comment on judicial proceedings without fear of defamation liability, even if they repeat the allegedly defamatory statements in their coverage of the case, provided the report is a fair and accurate description of the case. Does it follow, then, that a litigant can make defamatory comments to a reporter during the course of a case? Most courts would answer that in the negative, since the reporter is not involved in the case. But if that litigant is speaking about an issue of public interest, such as the operation of the District’s financial office, his comments may be protected by D.C.’s anti-SLAPP act.

Eric Payne, former contracting director for the District of Columbia, sued D.C.’s Chief Financial Officer, Natwar Gandhi, for wrongful termination. In an interview with The Washington Post, Gandhi claimed that he fired Payne because he was “a very poor manager,” “nasty to people,” and “rude to outsiders.” Payne then sued Gandhi and the District of Columbia alleging that these remarks defamed him. The city has indicated that it plans to file a special motion to dismiss the case under the city’s anti-SLAPP statute.

A “SLAPP” (or Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) can exist in many forms but traditionally consists of a frivolous lawsuit filed by one side of a public debate against someone who has exercised the right of free speech NatG.jpgto express an opposing viewpoint. The anti-SLAPP statute was enacted primarily to protect citizen activists from these lawsuits filed for intimidation purposes, but can be applied in any situation where the lawsuit threatens the right of advocacy on issues of public interest.

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