Ronson v. Lavandeira: Court Puts Smack Down on Libel Claim Against Perez Hilton

As anyone who follows the celebrity rags already knows, a California judge dealt a mortal blow to Samantha Ronson's libel suit againt litigation-magnet Mario Lavandeira (aka Perez Hilton) two weeks ago. Sadly, we've missed the scoop on this one, but I do have a copy of the transcript of the court's November 1st ruling. Surely the gossip hounds among you won't mind if I delve into the details a little.

To avoid alienating those who haven't been monitoring the case, I'll give a brief summary of the facts. According to Ronson's complaint, the online magazine "Celebrity Babylon" published statements in late May 2007 accusing Ronson of of planting drugs in Lindsey Lohan's car and "setting up" Lohan for press photographers in exchange for money. On June 1, Lavandeira allegedly republished these statements on his blog, adding that Ronson had been "toxic" for Lohan. Additionally, on June 13, 2007, Lavandeira allegedly published a posting under the headline "Blame Samantha!," which stated: "Was Lindsay Lohan betrayed by her lezbot DJ pal Samantha Ronson? Australia's NW magazine seems to think so. And we wouldn't disagree!" In June, Ronson sued Lavandeira, the Sunset Photo and News agency, which operates Celebrity Babylon, and Jill Ishkanian, its editor-in-chief. The complaint asserted a claim for libel and asked for $20 million in damages. (Ronson settled with Ishkanian for an undisclosed sum in October.)

On September 4, Lavandeira filed a motion to strike the complaint pursuant to California's anti-SLAPP statute (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. ยง 425.16). On November 1, the court granted Lavandeira's motion to strike the complaint.

California's anti-SLAPP statute says:

A cause of action against a person arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person's right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue shall be subject to a special motion to strike, unless the court determines that the plaintiff has established that there is a probability that the plaintiff will prevail on the claim.

The statute further provides that an "act in furtherance of a person's right of petition or free speech" includes "any written or oral statement or writing made in . . . a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest." In deciding whether Lavandeira could invoke the anti-SLAPP statue, the court therefore had two questions before it: (1) whether the statements Lavandeira made about Ronson were made in a "public forum"; and (2) whether these statements were about a "matter of public interest."

The court easily determined that Lavandeira's blog was a "public forum," explaining that "in this age of electronic media, a website may be a public forum -- especially a popular blog site with reports on celebrities would be considered a public forum."

The court spent more breath on the "matter of public interest" question. It relied on three things in determining that the whole, juicy Ronson/Lohan/cocaine/paparazzi affair was a matter of public interest. The first two of these factors also weighed heavily in the court's later finding that Ronson was "at least" a limited purpose public figure for purposes of the libel claim.

First, the court relied on Ronson's own prominence as a performer. The court noted that the complaint itself alleged that Ronson "is a disc jockey who regularly performs at events involving celebrities and major corporate events and performs on entertainment shows."

Second, the court stressed the fact that Ronson chose to associate with Lohan, a celebrity, and that the statements at issue were about that relationship:

The court concludes that reports about a celebrity, or [a] person associating with one, someone who voluntarily injects herself into the public eye qualifies as being a public figure, or at a minimum, a limited public figure, and qualifies as subject matter of public interest.

Third, the court indicated that the accusation about illegal drugs, all on its own, "implicates the public interest."

Having decided that the anti-SLAPP statute applied to Levandeira's conduct, the court turned to Ronson's burden under the statute. According to the court, the anti-SLAPP law requires a plaintiff to produce evidence sufficient to survive a motion for summary judgment. For nonlawyers, this means that the plaintiff must produce sufficient evidence for each element of her claim so that there is a live factual dispute requiring decision by a jury. Under this standard, evidence is required and bald allegations of wrongdoing do not suffice.

The death knell for Ronson's case was the court's finding that she was a limited purpose public figure (and perhaps even a full-blown public figure). This is an important issue because, in the court's words, "if there is a public figure or limited public figure, then in order to succeed on the claim, the plaintiff has to show malice with respect to any defamatory statement made by the defendant." As with the question of "public interest," the court relied on Ronson's stature as a DJ and her relationship with Lohan in order to find that she was a public figure.

As for actual malice, the court indicated that Ronson had not submitted any evidence to show that Lavandeira knew or was reckless with regard to the falsity of his statements. In his motion to strike, Lavandeira submitted an affidavit, in which he stated, among other things, that

When I quoted the article from celebritybabylon.com on the Website on June 1, 2007 and the statement from NW magazine on June 13, 2007, I genuinely believed that the reports about Ronson were true based on all of the information that had been circulating on the Internet at the time and the information that I had received about Ronson since early 2006. When I posted these articles, I had not read, seen, or heard any information indicating the reports about Ronson were false. Since the Accident, I have not heard any reports from any source indicating that the cocaine found in Lohan's car did not belong to Ronson, that Ronson did not have a deal with photographers, or that she had not arranged photo opportunities of Lohan for photographers.

Perhaps not the most rigorous of pre-publication practices, but it was enough in this case. The court emphasized that it had given Ronson permission to take Lavandeira's deposition and to file supplemental papers, but that she had come forward with no evidence on this point.

Thanks to Bryan Freedman, Lavandeira's attorney, for providing us with a copy of the transcript, and congratulations to Bryan and Mario on a fine victory.

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