Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, June 13, 2023


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Defamation Suit Based on Statements by Ex-Sitcom Actress May Proceed—C.A.

Opinion Says Discussion of Relationship With Former Producer Is Not a ‘Public Issue’


By a MetNews Staff Writer




A 1990s sitcom star who has publicly accused the man who handled her career over a period of 22 years of having had a Svengali influence over her, brainwashing her, causing her to sue her parents and shun her friends, cannot invoke the protection of the anti-SLAPP statute in a defamation action against her because her relationship with the defendant is not a matter in which there is public interest, the Court of Appeal has determined.

The anti-SLAPP statute, Code of Civil Procedure §425.16, protects statements “made in…a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest”—the first prong of the statute.

Justice Audra Mori of this district’s Div. Four authored the opinion, filed Friday. It was not certified for publication although it contains, in passing, an observation that the credibility of a forum—in this instance, “The Worst Podcast Ever”—as a source of news is a factor in determining whether the first prong is satisfied.

The opinion affirms an order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John J. Kralik denying a special motion to strike brought by Angela Watson, who portrayed an unmarried couple’s teenage daughter on “Step by Step” which aired on ABC from 1991-97 and on CBS from 1997-98.

Not an Appellant

Although the opinion reflects Div. Four’s view that Kralik properly ruled that producer Gilbert A. Cabot may proceed in his action against Watson, the panel did not act on an appeal by her. Rather, the opinion comes in response to an appeal by two co-defendants in Cabot’s suit, Christine Lakin and Alaa Khaled, who hosted an interview with Watson, divided into two podcasts, distributed in 2020.

Lakin also portrayed a daughter on “Step by Step.” On the podcast—arranged to enable Watson to discuss her recent recording, “We Love Santa Claus”—Watson said:

“Yes, I did sue my parents. That’s a truth, but I really was kind of brainwashed by a certain person and turned against my whole family and my whole cast and friends….”

Although Watson did not identify the “person,” it was acknowledged on appeal that the reference was to Cabot.

Allegations on IMDb

Although the discussion did not relate to liability of the appellants in connection with the podcasts, Mori, apparently wishing to add context, recited a blurb Watson uploaded to the Internet Movie Database (“IMDb”) in which she elaborated, in the third person:

“Even though a successful TV actress, Angela was far from an experienced Hollywood wild child, and unfortunately her innocence and naivete were taken advantage of by a so called ‘production partner’ who promised to help her transition into an adult actor with longevity in the business. By the time her family and friends realized he was actually a con man who was brainwashing Angela, it was too late.”

Watson continued:

“Over the next 20 years, not only was Angela isolated from everyone she loved, but he also convinced her that she had to sue her parents for supposedly ‘stealing her money,’ when in fact, he was the one fleecing her acting earnings. Her relationship with the narcissistic abuser turned into a daily nightmare she couldn’t escape from. Thankfully, Angela was able to secretly listen to some YouTube videos that she now knows was actually reprogramming her brain to choose to be happy despite her circumstances. After two years of doing so, she realized she had the courage and strength to break free.”

Having provided that background, Mori acknowledged:

“[T]he only issue we must determine in this appeal is whether the statements uttered during appellants’ podcast were made in connection with an issue of public interest.”

Mori’s Opinion

She wrote:

“Appellants discuss at length Watson’s purported celebrity status….

“However…, celebrity status does not automatically immunize every statement that a celebrity makes.”

Mori continued:

“[W]here the statements target an individual or entity who does not reside in the public eye, defendants cannot rely on their own fame to broadly sweep into anti-SLAPP protection.”

Cabot is not a person in the public eye, the jurist said, setting forth:

“Here, as the trial court pointed out, appellants did not allege that respondent himself, the target of the statements, is a public figure or person in the public eye. Moreover, in Watson’s own declaration she stated that ‘Cabot was a very private person who did not seek personal publicity resulting from his work with me.’ ”

No Public Controversy

Mori said that the statements in issue “were made about the private relationship” between Watson and Cabot. While Watson “had enjoyed celebrity decades prior and may still have been known to listeners of the podcast,” there was “no evidence that this relationship” between her and Cabot was itself “the subject” of any matter of public discussion, she wrote.

The justice declared:

“Moreover, Watson went on the show for the purpose of speaking about the release of her Christmas song. Appellants admit that the Worst Podcast Ever is not a serious source of news reporting but a fun show that attracts listeners interested in entertaining topics. Thus, based upon the content and context of the statements, they were not made in connection with an issue of public interest such that they are protected.”

She said in a footnote: “In light of our decision, we need not reach the second step of the section 425.16 analysis, namely, whether there is a probability of success on the merits.”

The case is Cabot v. Lakin, B316063.


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