Articles Posted in Public Figures

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.

Former Georgia State Director for Rural Development, Shirley Sherrod, filed a defamation action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against bloggers Andrew Breitbart and Larry O’Connor based on a blog post allegedly portraying her as racist. The court denied defendants’ special motion to dismiss under D.C.’s anti-SLAPP Act. Defendants appealed, and the case is now pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

The district court cited three reasons for its dismissal. First, it found that entertaining defendants’ motion would require retroactive application of the anti-SLAPP statute as Sherrod filed her complaint on February 11, 2011 and the D.C. anti-SLAPP Act did not become effective until March 31, 2011. Typically, only statutes that are purely procedural in nature can be applied retroactively, and the court held that the Act is substantive (or has substantive consequences). Defendants argue that whether the statute only applies to actions filed after its effective date is an issue of first impression, and summary disposition of a case of first impression involving a newly enacted statue that protects important First Amendment rights is not appropriate.

The district court found that even if the statute were purely procedural, the Erie doctrine, which requires federal courts sitting in diversity to apply state substantive law and federal procedural law, bars its application in federal court. Finally, the district court held that even if defendants could show that the statute is both retroactive and slap.pngapplicable in federal court, the plain language of the statute bars the motion to dismiss–the statute provides that a party may file a special motion to dismiss within 45 days after service of the claim, and here, the motion was filed more than two weeks after the 45 days had passed.

Libel and slander claims depend to a large extent on whom the plaintiff targeted with the allegedly defamatory statement. Defamatory words may not support a cause of action unless they directly or inferentially refer to the plaintiff–this has come to be known as the “of and concerning” test. The defamation case filed against former Governor Eliot Spitzer and Slate Magazine Slate for a column Mr. Spitzer wrote in 2010 about an insurance bid-rigging scandal was recently dismissed by a New York court on the ground that the article did not sufficiently identify the plaintiff–a former insurance executive at Marsh & McLennan–as the subject of the statements.

William Gilman’s work for Marsh included negotiating “contingent commissions”–fees paid by insurers to insurance brokers who place insurance business with the insurer. As attorney general, Spitzer took the position that Marsh’s use of such commissions was illegal. A lawsuit ensued and Gilman was convicted of one count of restraint of trade and competition. While Gilman’s appeal was pending, the trial judge vacated his conviction because exculpatory evidence had not been disclosed during trial. Spitzer wrote an article published on Slate.com in response to a Wall Street Journal article criticizing his handling of the Marsh case. Gilman brought a claim for defamation against Spitzer and Slate based on statements in Spitzer’s article.

Gilman’s defamation claim was based on (1) a reference to “the many employees of Marsh who have been convicted and sentenced to jail terms” and (2) the statement that Marsh’s employees “pocketed … increased fees and kickbacks.” Defendants argued that neither of the challenged statements was “of and concerning” Gilman and therefore could not be defamatory.

Climate change scientist Dr. Michael Mann is threatening legal action against the National Review magazine for a blog post that appeared in “The Corner” section of its online publication. In the article, journalist Mark Steyn quoted writer Rand Simberg’s observation that Dr. Mann “could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data…” Mr. Steyn went on to call Mann “the man behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus.”

In a demand letter to the National Review, Dr. Mann’s attorney, John Williams, contends that Mr. Steyn’s statements amount to accusations of academic fraud and constitute defamation per se. He argues that the statements were false and were made with the knowledge that they were false. He cites several inquiries into his research which concluded that he has not engaged in academic fraud as proof that Mr. Steyn’s statements are false. Dr. Mann demands that the National Review retract the article and apologize or face legal action.

Dr. Mann may have a valid complaint, but he is going to have his work cut out for him. Dr. Mann is a well-known, much published and often quoted figure in the climate change debate. In fact, Dr. Mann has written a book on the climate change controversy. Courts have held that scientists who inject themselves into public controversies over scientific and political debates are public figures. As a public figure, Dr. Mann would have to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the National Review published a provably false statement with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

Laurie Fine, the wife of Bernie Fine, former Associate Coach of the Syracuse University men’s basketball team, has filed a libel and defamation action against ESPN and two of its employees, Mark Schwarz and Arthur Berko. ESPN published several stories about her relating to her husband’s alleged molestation of minors. She seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

In the 1980s, the Fines took in a Syracuse basketball ‘ball boy,’ Robert Davis, who later accused Bernie Fine of molesting him while he lived there. Davis also accused Laurie Fine of knowing about the molestation and allowing it to continue. He also claims to have had a sexual relationship with Laurie while he was in high school.

The complaint paints a picture of a troubled young man who financially took advantage of the Fines, often fabricating stories to trick them into giving him money. It asserts that, to elicit sympathy and funding, Davis told Laurie that Bernie had molested him in the 1980s but that the couple continued to enable him. The complaint portrays the plaintiff as suffering through conversations with Davis in hopes he would outgrow his problems, using sarcasm to keep from ‘going off’ on him and asking questions to ‘test’ how far the young man would go. These allegations appear to offer a different interpretation of statements attributed to her in a 2002 taped recording Davis made.

Julie Anne Smith and her family attended Beaverton Grace Bible Church for over two years. When the church dismissed one of its employees for “subversive conduct,” the Smith family sought meetings with the Pastor and Elders to discuss the situation because they felt the termination was handled poorly. During the meetings, the Smiths and church officials discussed church policies and governance. Later, an elder informed Mrs. Smith that she must “recant” or her entire family would no longer be welcome at the church. The Smiths stopped attending the church.

Mrs. Smith later learned that Oregon authorities were investigating allegations of child molestation by a teenage member of the church whom she had seen in the child care area. The Pastor and Elders came unannounced to the Smith home demanding to know whether the Smiths knew who had reported the abuse. The Pastor informed the Smiths that they were “excommunicated.”

Mrs. Smith began posting comments about the church under Google’s “reviews” of the church. Congregants, former congregants, and the Pastor also posted comments, and the dialogue about church governance and doctrine continued. The Pastor removed many postings, so Mrs. Smith began her own blog, Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors, where she continued making and encouraging comments.

Christian minister and hard-rocker Bradlee Dean and his non-profit foundation, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International (YCR), brought a defamation suit against liberal talk show host and commentator Rachel Maddow for comments Maddow made on The Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow is hitting back hard, filing a motion to dismiss under the District of Columbia’s relatively new anti-SLAPP Act. If Maddow’s motion is successful, Dean’s defamation case will not only be dismissed with prejudice, but Maddow will be entitled to recovery of her attorneys’ fees.

The complaint alleges that Maddow disparaged Dean’s physical appearance, first name, profession, and standing in the community and represented that he and YCR advocate the execution of homosexuals. In her commentary (excerpted below), Maddow mentioned that Dean denied having called for the execution of homosexuals, but Dean and YCR contend that Maddow did so begrudgingly and in a way that suggested their denial was disingenuous.

Dean charges Maddow with referring to him as a “bloodthirsty” individual calling for the “upping of the bloodshed in America’s culture wars,” and accusing him of advocating the use of foreign enemies against America because Christians “aren’t doing the job by killing gays and lesbians.” According to the plaintiffs, Maddow’s comments proliferated in the media and led to Dean receiving Internet death threats from gay activists. The plaintiffs contend that Maddow made these comments as a liberal member of the media and lesbian activist in order to harm the presidential campaign of Congresswoman Michelle Bachman to whom Maddow linked Mr. Dean and YCR on several occasions.

When a public figure alleges defamation, he must demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the speaker made the defamatory statement with actual malice. Judge Henry E. Hudson of the Eastern District of Virginia confirmed this heightened standard when he dismissed the complaint brought by Wayne Besen, the Executive Director of Truth Wins Out (“TWO”), a non-profit organization that addresses anti-gay behavior.

Besen filed a claim for defamation per se against the non-profit organization Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, Inc. (“PFOX”) and Gregory Quinlan, the President and CEO of the organization, after Quinlan made comments about Besen on local television and the organization’s blog. Specifically, Quinlan asserted that Besen once stated that someone should run Quinlan over with a bus or inject him with AIDS. On the PFOX blog, Quinlan also suggested that Besen had been fired from the Human Rights Campaign. Quinlan refused to retract either statement, even after Besen approached him about the comments.

Under Virginia law, defamation per se can be found where there are “words that impute to a person the commission of a crime of moral turpitude or which prejudice a person in his profession or trade.” If the plaintiff is a public figure, he must prove that the defendant published a false and defamatory statement with actual malice, meaning that it was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth. Plaintiffs can be public figures for all purposes and in all contexts, or may be “limited public figures” with respect only to a limited range of issues.

Shortly after being found “not guilty” of embezzlement by a Loudoun County jury, Deanne “Dee Dee” Hubbard, editor of the Middleburg Eccentric, has filed a defamation action against her chief antagonists, Jack J. Goehring, III, and his wife, Mary Kirk Goehring, in Loudoun County Circuit Court.

For over a decade, Deanne “Dee Dee” Hubbard managed Middleburg, Virginia properties co-owned by Jack Goehring and his wife. She also lived in one of their rental properties with her son and daughter-in-law and she and her daughter rented space in one of the Goehrings’ commercial buildings. Ms. Hubbard was responsible for collecting rents from the Goehring properties. When Mr. Goehring discovered several rent checks had found their way into accounts Ms. Hubbard controlled, rather than into his accounts, he urged the Commonwealth Attorney’s office to prosecute Hubbard. Ms. Hubbard claimed she’d mistakenly marked the checks for the wrong accounts and set the accounts right as soon as the error was discovered.

Ms. Hubbard was prosecuted on fourteen felony embezzlement charges but was acquitted of all charges. Now, she and several family members have sued Goehring and his wife for waging “a campaign of malicious prosecution, libel, slander, and defamation.” The complaint paints Mr. Goehring as a vindictive man intent upon securing the charges against Ms. Hubbard and ratcheting up the surrounding publicity so as to defame and humiliate her. It accuses Goehring of filing an affidavit with the Middleburg Bank accusing Hubbard and her family members of identity theft, using his personal identifying information to obtain money, goods, services and other benefits without his authorization. The plaintiffs claim Goehring made false statements to law enforcement authorities that led to Hubbard’s arrest, arranged to have a friend photograph Hubbard being taken into custody in handcuffs, and then helped the photographer find a buyer for the photos. Ultimately, the photos appeared on television, in the local paper and on the Internet.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is poised to rule on the appeal of NASCAR driver Jeremy Allen Mayfield, who is appealing the dismissal of his case involving claims of defamation, breach of contract, and deceptive trade practices. The trial court had dismissed the case based in large part on contractual release and indemnification provisions, including a release of liability arising from the publication of the results of any substance-abuse test.

Mayfield entered into a written contract with NASCAR in which he agreed to submit to random drug testing. On May 1, 2009, NASCAR asked Mayfield to submit to such a test. He complied and informed David Black, the president of Aegis, the chemical company performing the test, that he had taken Claritin and Adderall just prior to submitting a sample for testing. On May 7, 2009, Mayfield was informed that his test came back positive for amphetamines. After some confusion about the number of samples and whether Aegis tested the correct sample, NASCAR informed Mayfield that he was suspended as a driver and as the owner of a team. The president of NASCAR, Brian France, then held a press conference announcing to the world that Mayfield had been suspended for taking either performance-enhancing or recreational drugs.

After the press conference, Black informed reporters that the positive test result had nothing to do with any over-the-counter medication. As a result of these public statements, Mayfield and his corporate NASCAR team filed suit against NASCAR, NASCAR.jpgFrance, Aegis, and Black, claiming that they were responsible for publicly defaming him. Mayfield argued in the suit that the statements were “intentional, malicious, reckless and false.”

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