Is Michael Skakel A “Public Figure?,” CtdPosted: March 20, 2014
Nancy Grace is not taking Federal District Court Judge Vanessa Bryant’s recent rejection of her motion to dismiss Michael Skakel’s libel suit sitting down. Today she filed a motion asking Judge Bryant to reconsider her ruling.
Grace’s attorney (the multi-talented Cameron Stracher) argues that Judge Bryant made two critical errors. First, Stracher argues that she erred in declining to recognize that Skakel is a public figure as a matter of law. (I addressed that issue in my earlier post.)
Second, Stracher argues (correctly, IMHO) that Judge Bryant applied the wrong burden of proof on the issue of the “substantial truth” of the allegedly defamatory statements:
[T]he Court failed to recognize that the First Amendment reverses the common law burdens when a libel plaintiff challenges a statement on a matter of public concern, which Skakel does here as a matter of law because the statements he challenges discuss a murder prosecution. Citing Connecticut cases involving private libels alleged against non-media defendants, the Court mistakenly considered it to be defendants’ burden to establish truth as an affirmative defense, and found it premature to resolve truthfulness at the pleading stage. Under binding Supreme Court precedent, it is plaintiff’s burden to plead and prove that a challenged statement is substantially false when it involves a matter of public concern, and this issue is often resolved on a pre-discovery motion to dismiss. On the facts alleged here, and those of which the Court may take judicial notice, plaintiff cannot meet this overlooked burden. His claims should properly be dismissed.
Judges are naturally reluctant to toss plaintiffs out of court on motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. In my prior post I suggested that such reluctance was a motivating factor in Judge Bryant’s ruling. In other words, her ruling did not telegraph her views on the merits of the claims; she simply wanted to give Skakel an opportunity to develop more of a factual record. But, as Stracher points out in Grace’s motion for reconsideration, there are strong reasons for taking motions to dismiss very seriously in libel cases:
Reconsideration . . . is particularly warranted given the important First Amendment issues at stake. Courts repeatedly have emphasized the special duty of a trial court to ensure that claims lacking merit are terminated at the earliest possible stage in cases, like this one, that directly implicate the freedom of speech and press. This ensures that the burden of litigation through discovery and trial does not itself chill speech on matters of public concern.
Skakel’s attorneys will have an opportunity to respond to Grace’s motion for reconsideration before Judge Bryant rules on it. Stay tuned.