Michael Avenatti’s Libel Lawsuit Against Fox Thrown Out by Judge
From the opinion today in Avenatti v. Fox News Network, LLC, written by Third Circuit Judge Stephanos Bibas (sitting by designation in District Court):
News outlets are not liable for minor mistakes, especially when reporting on public figures and matters of public concern. Michael Avenatti, a famous lawyer, was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. Fox News covered his arrest. He sued, claiming that its reporting defamed him. But most of its statements were substantially true. And Avenatti does not plausibly plead that Fox or its employees knew that the statements were false or recklessly disregarded that possibility. He also fails to allege any recoverable damages. I will thus dismiss his complaint….
In 2018, Avenatti thrust himself into the national spotlight by “develop[ing] and execut[ing] an extensive media strategy” as then-President Trump’s “fiercest, most vocal critic.” He announced that he was considering running for President. But his fortunes soon took a turn for the worse: Avenatti was arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department for suspected domestic violence….
The night of the arrest, [Fox News Network’s] hosts reported extensively on Avenatti…. Avenatti complains that Defendants lied about the details of his arrest: He does not deny that he was taken into custody, nor that he got out on bail. But he was not “charged … with any crime relating to any alleged incident involving domestic violence or assault.” His estranged wife was not involved, nor did she file a complaint. There was no “incident or allegation involving any witness, victim or woman” being left with bruises or a black eye. And Avenatti did not run after a woman yelling, “She hit me first!” …
Judge Bibas concluded that some of the statements were substantially true:
Defamatory speech must be materially false. “Minor inaccuracies do not amount to falsity so long as ‘the substance, the gist, the sting, of the libelous charge be justified.'” The heart of Avenatti’s case is just such a minor error.
Avenatti complains that Defendants said he was arrested on charges of domestic violence. He admits that he was arrested. And he does not deny that he was arrested due to suspected domestic violence. But he insists he was never formally charged. And to Avenatti, there is a “marked, material difference … [between] being arrested [by police] on suspicion of having committed a crime and … actually being charged with a crime” in court.
There is a difference to lawyers. But I assess the statements in question “from the perspective of the average reader, not a person trained in the technicalities of the law.” And charge “may be used in a popular sense as a synonym for accuse.” Rouch v. Enquirer & News of Battle Creek Mich. (M
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