Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Court: Spelling Estate Cannot Pursue Defamation Case Over Questionnaire
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that the estate of the late television producer Aaron Spelling cannot proceed with its case against a lawyer it says defamed Spelling by circulating a questionnaire to his former employees asking if Spelling had ever sexually harassed them.
Affirming the judgment of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William J. Highberger to strike Spelling’s estate’s defamation complaint against Don D. Sessions under the Anti-SLAPP statute, Div. Seven ruled in an unpublished opinion that Spelling’s estate could not prevail against Sessions because it could neither show that Sessions’ statements were false, nor that Sessions acted with malice in making them.
The action arose in connection with litigation over claims by Sessions’ client, Charlene Richards, that Spelling sexually harassed her while she worked as his private nurse.
Prolific Television Producer
Spelling, who produced over 218 television shows, including “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” needed private nursing care around the clock in the years leading up to his death in 2006. In 2004, his wife, Candy Spelling, hired Richards for the position, and the Spellings had Richards sign a confidentiality agreement.
Richard’s work required her to stay in Aaron Spelling’s bedroom overnight, and she claimed that Spelling sexually harassed her while they were alone. She also said that Spelling bragged about many past sexual relations with women actors seeking work, and that Spelling said she was the one woman in his life who had ever rejected his advances.
Candy Spelling fired Richards in 2005 for breaching the confidentiality agreement by disclosing private facts to others about the Spellings’ home life, and Richards then retained Sessions to bring a sexual harassment suit against Aaron Spelling.
Before filing the suit, Sessions served a demand letter on the Spellings’ attorney, who responded that he would schedule mediation if Richards could provide corroboration.
Sessions responded that he would be contacting other witnesses in preparation for filing the lawsuit, and then sent a letter and survey to 600 actors—all but one of whom were women—who had received acting credit on projects for which Aaron Spelling had also received credit. The letter and survey recounted Richards’ charges against Spelling, as well as Spelling’s denial, and requested the recipients to state whether they or anyone they knew had ever experienced any sexual harassment by Spelling.
The next month, a publication called Globe printed an article about the survey which quoted Sessions as saying “[w]e want to find additional people who may have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment from Aaron Spelling.”
Sessions swore without contradiction that he did not provide his cover letter to any media outlet, and that he did not initiate any contact with Globe or any other media outlets, but instead made the statement in response to a contact by Globe.
The Spellings sued both Richards and Sessions for defamation and for breach of contract based on Richards’s alleged disclosure of secret information in breach of the confidentiality agreement. Richards and Sessions responded by filing the sexual harassment suit against the Spellings, and simultaneously filing a special motion to strike the Spellings’ lawsuit as a violation of the Anti-SLAPP statute.
The Spellings conceded that Richards’s and Sessions’s statements arose from a constitutionally protected activity under the first prong of the anti-SLAPP statute, and Highberger granted the motion after concluding the communications were protected by the litigation privilege.
Richards and the Spellings subsequently settled their actions against one another, leaving only the claims against Sessions.
No Prima Facie Case
On appeal, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John S. Wiley, sitting by designation, wrote for the Court of Appeal that the Spellings could not establish a prima facie case of defamation by Sessions because they could not show that his claims were false, or that he had acted maliciously.
Noting Aaron Spelling’s status as a public figure, Wiley wrote that he could not establish a probability of proving that the claims were false because there were no eyewitnesses, because Aaron Spelling’s assertion that he could not recall harassing Richards did not contradict her testimony.
Wiley also concluded that Spelling could not show that Sessions acted maliciously because Spelling could not show that Sessions knew the statements were false or had doubts as to their truth.
“To establish a probability of success on his defamation case, Spelling had to make a prima facie showing that Sessions at least had serious doubts about whether Richards was believable. Sessions swore that he got the detailed story straight from Richards, that her reporting timing was persuasive, that two other women told him similar stories, that they were all convincingly emotional, distraught, and sincere, and that he believed them.
“Spelling was not able to muster a factual showing that in any significant way contradicted this basic account of good faith. Spelling did not have a case on actual malice, and so did not have a case on defamation.”
Justices Fred Woods and Laurie D. Zelon joined Wiley in his opinion.
The case is Spelling v. Sessions, B192406.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company