Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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Journalist Dolia Estevez published in Forbes.com an article titled “The 10 Most Corrupt Mexicans of 2013,” in which she included a former top government official named Alejandra Sota. Sota sued Estevez alleging that the statements in the article were defamatory. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed Sota’s complaint because the article constituted an opinion of the author and the statements did not imply false facts.
Dolia Estevez is a part-time journalist for the Mexican media conglomerate, Noticias MVS, and a Forbes contributor. On December 16, 2013, Estevez published an article on Forbes (forbes.com), titled “The 10 Most Corrupt Mexicans of 2013,” in the form of a list. Estevez included Alejandra Sota in that list. Sota was a former spokesperson and advisor to the former Mexican President Felipe Calderón. In her article, Espinoza alleged that Mexican authorities were investigating Sota for several crimes, including embezzlement and trafficking of influence.
She also alleged that Sota was suspected of “favoring friends and former classmates with government contracts during the time she served as a top government official”, and that she was “attending graduate school at Harvard’s Kennedy School, even though she has no college degree.” [p. 2] Estevez made several updates to the article. On December 15, 2014, Estevez made an update, stating that Mexico’s Department of Public Performance, an alleged defunct agency, “had cleared Sota of ‘illicit enrichment’ charges.” [p. 2] On December 22, 2014, she acknowledged that in the previous update, she incorrectly stated that the agency that cleared Sota of the charges was defunct. She explained that the agency did exist, but was dissolved by Congress in 2012. [p. 2]
Alejandra Sota subsequently sued Estevez in the Eastern District Court of Viginia, claiming that her article was defamatory. She alleged that the article was part of a campaign by Noticias MVS to discredit her. She further argued that the piece falsely declared that: (1) she was perceived to be corrupt; (2) she is in fact corrupt; and (3) she is perceived to be one of the most corrupt people in Mexico. Estevez argued that none of the statements complained by Sota were actionable “because they [were] either true statements of fact or [her] opinion.” Accordingly, Estevez filed a motion to dismiss Sota’s amended complaint.
Judge Liam O’Grady delivered the order of the Eastern District Court of Virginia.
The main issue before the court was whether Sota’s amended complaint sufficiently stated a claim for defamation. The court dismissed the defamation claim because Sota had “failed to state claims for defamation which relief can be granted.” [p. 10] The court also concluded that the article amounted to an opinion and that it did not imply false facts. It stated that under Virginia Law, the elements of a defamation suit are: “(1) publication of (2) an actionable statement with (3) requisite intent.” It also established that pursuant to the First Amendment, if the plaintiff is a public figure or public official, there has to be “clear and convincing evidence that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’.” [p. 4]
The court determined that the actual assertion of the article was that Sota was perceived to be corrupt. Judge O’Grady added that the assertion was not actionable because it was “not objectively verifiable and instead amount[ed] to a subjective assertion.” [p.6] Thus, the assertion of the perception of a corrupt person depends on the speaker’s point of view and can be regarded as an opinion. Moreover, Sota’s inclusion “derived from two admittedly true factual bases disclosed in the Article.” [p. 7]
Judge O’Grady also stated that articles in the form of a list (also known as “listicles”) are a growing trend used “to convey ideas in an easy to digest format.” He added that reasonable readers would understand that these articles constitute an opinion of the author. He concluded that no reasonable reader would consider Sota’s inclusion as anything but the opinion of the author. [p.8]
The court also noted that Sota’s argument that the article provoked a defamatory inference could not succeed because it was based on a true statement. The court reiterated that Mexican authorities in fact investigated Sota and a true statement cannot give rise to a defamation claim. [p. 8] It considered the false statements in the updates as a minor inaccuracy, not sufficient in giving rise to a defamation claim. The court also rejected Sota’s claim that the article and its subsequent updates were actionable because they implied false undisclosed facts that supported Sota’s inclusion on Estevez’s list. [p. 9] It noted that the bases for the conclusion of Estevez’s opinion were fully disclosed and for those reasons they did not imply false facts. [p. 9]
Accordingly, the court dismissed Sota’s complaint of defamation.
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