Wednesday, July 30, 3003
Attorney for Fired New York Post Reporter Says Ruling Is Victory for Journalists
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Court of Appeal ruling that allows a journalist fired by the New York Post to sue the Walt Disney Company for libel is a boon to the reporting profession as well as a victory for his client, the plaintiff’s attorney said yesterday.
“This is a banner day for all journalists,” Pierce O’Donnell said in a statement. “Influential companies like Disney cannot manipulate the legal system to squash legitimate claims challenging heavy-handed conduct in defaming conscientious reporters and getting them fired for doing their jobs.”
O’Donnell, of the downtown Los Angeles firm of O’Donnell & Schaefer, is the lead attorney for Nikki Finke. Finke, who now writes for LA Weekly, claims that she was terminated from her post as an entertainment business reporter with the New York Post because of Disney’s threats of economic reprisal against the newspaper.
The Court of Appeal’s Div. Seven held Monday that the bulk of Finke’s suit against the entertainment conglomerate may proceed, rejecting Disney’s contention that the entire suit should be thrown out as a strategic lawsuit against public participation. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory Alarcón had denied the motion, saying the anti-SLAPP statute did not apply.
The Court of Appeal disagreed on that point, finding Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.16 applicable. But the panel, in an opinion by Justice Earl Johnson Jr., said that Finke had carried her burden of showing that she would probably prevail on her claims for libel, interference with contract, interference with prospective business advantage, and infliction of emotional distress.
The justices agreed with Disney that Finke did not show a likelihood of prevailing on separate claims for slander and unlawful business practices, and ordered them stricken. O’Donnell noted in his statement that Finke had not had the opportunity for discovery.
Finke’s reports on Disney’s litigation with the American rights holders to the A.A. Milne character Winnie-the-Pooh concerned monetary and evidentiary discovery sanctions and potential Disney losses if the company’s license to exploit Winnie-the-Pooh and related characters was cancelled.
The Court of Appeal said Disney President Robert Iger probably defamed Finke in a letter to Col Allan, the Post’s editor-in-chief. Johnson cited Iger’s claims that Finke’s reporting “includes serious misrepresentations clearly designed to injure the Walt Disney Company”; contains “a gross misstatement of the facts” and an “absolute distortion” of court records; is “absolutely false” in describing one court order and “grossly mischaracterized” another.
The panel rejected Disney’s contention that Finke was a public figure who must prove malice in order to prevail on a defamation claim. Unlike columnists and editors, Johnson reasoned, a reporter like Finke lacks the prominence and media access that serve as rationales for the “absence of malice” rule that applies to public figures.
The Iger letter, the justice went on to say, also supports Finke’s interference-with-business-relations claims, since the plaintiff will probably be able to prove that the Post ended its relationship with Finke as a direct result of Disney’s contentions, Johnson said.
Disney attorney Patricia Glaser was unavailable for comment, but corporate spokesman John Spelich said that Disney was “pleased that the Court of Appeal recognized that the SLAPP statute applies, and that it ruled for Disney on two causes of action.” The company is optimistic that it will ultimately prevail on the remaining claims, Spelich added.
The case is Finke v. Walt Disney Company, 03 S.O.S. 3973.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company