Monday, November 8, 2010

Circuit reinstates defamation claim against MSNBC

You could say that many defamation claims are usually not worth it because the plaintiff wants damages for bad things that were said about him to people who probably weren't listening anyway, or who forgot about it the next day. But if you're a public figure who is defamed publicly, that's usually a different story.

The case is DiFolco v. MSNBC Cable, LLC, decided on October 7. FiFolco was a news anchor, reporter, etc., who signed an employment agreement with the cable network to cover celebrity stuff. Of course, since this is a lawsuit, something went horribly wrong, and she claims that management "conspired to make her life miserable" by canceling her shoots and otherwise harassing her (though I don't see anything about sexual harassment). When she left the station, management made derogatory statements about her to Internet sites and other outlets, saying that she broke her employment contract. Among other things, she sues for defamation.

The Court of Appeals (Miner, Lynch and Trager [D.J.]) holds that the complaint states a claim for defamation because the statements tend to impugn her reputation "in the way of her office, profession or trade." Under New York defamation law, anyone hearing that she broke her employment agreement would think that DiFolco was "unfit to continue her calling."

DeFolco also sued for defamation because someone at MSNBC told media outlets that "she relied on cleavage and makeup to advance her career, ignored directions, refused 'alternate takes,' pouted, and was not a team player." While the district court said she did not have a claim because these statements were matters of opinion (nonactionable under defamation law), the Second Circuit reinstates that claim under the complex but settled New York rule that "opinions based on false facts are actionable ... against a defendant who had knowledge of the falsity or probable falsity of the underlying facts," especially where the "negative characterization ... is coupled with a clear but false implication that the author is privy to facts about the person that are unknown to the general reader."

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