Where a plaintiff who had been convicted of multiple violent crimes filed a defamation claim asserting that a reporter damaged his reputation by stating in a written article that the FBI suspected he might have murdered his girlfriend, the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal based on the theory that the plaintiff was libel-proof.
In Benanti v. Satterfield, No. E2018-01848-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 27, 2020), plaintiff filed a pro se defamation claim against a newspaper reporter. Plaintiff had previously been convicted in a very public trial of a scheme involving bank robbery through the kidnapping and extortion of bank employees and their families. Defendant reporter had written articles about plaintiff and his trial, several of which plaintiff attached to his complaint. While the articles contained information about plaintiff kidnapping entire families, pointing a gun at a baby’s head, and strapping a fake bomb to an elderly mother, plaintiff’s defamation claims were based on the portions of the articles that stated that plaintiff was suspected of possibly murdering his girlfriend because she found out about the criminal activities (though her death was ruled a suicide), as well as portions that alleged his business that focused on helping prisoners re-enter society was a sham.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which the trial court granted. Plaintiff then filed a motion stating that he never received the motion to dismiss because it was delivered to the prison in the wrong color envelope, so the trial court gave him additional time to respond. After reviewing plaintiff’s response, the trial court held that “plaintiff’s arguments do not warrant a reversal of the court’s decision to grant the motion to dismiss.” The Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal.
In its opinion, the Court began by examining defendant’s theory that plaintiff’s libel claim failed because plaintiff was libel-proof. The Court noted that this doctrine “developed…as a means of dealing with plaintiffs who challenge published statements that do not in fact damage their already sullied reputations.” (internal citation omitted). The Court pointed out that one instance in which this theory comes into play is “when previous publicity or criminal convictions have so tarnished the plaintiff’s reputation that he should be barred, as a matter of law, from receiving a damage award.” (internal citation omitted).
In this case, “defendants argue[d] that plaintiff’s reputation [could not] be further damaged because he [had] been convicted of violent crimes and [had] been sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars,” and the Court agreed. The Court ruled that even though the crimes defendant was convicted of might be considered lesser offenses than murder, “plaintiff’s reputation as a violent criminal has been established in the public eye.” Although the libel-proof doctrine “should be applied with caution and sparingly,” here, plaintiff’s violent crimes “were widely publicized” and this alleged murder suspicion was “in connection with the same criminal enterprise.” (internal citation omitted).
The Court rejected plaintiff’s argument that because the allegations were printed before his conviction, the libel-proof doctrine should not apply. The Court pointed out that while plaintiff had not yet been convicted when the statements were made, these articles were published “after plaintiff’s arrest and contemporaneously with his widely-publicized criminal trial,” and thus it would be “a stretch for plaintiff to argue that he still had a positive reputation as a reformed ex-convict and successful businessman after he was arrested and charged with committing multiple violent felonies.”
The Court also noted that other states have “applied the libel-proof doctrine when a plaintiff’s defamation lawsuit is predicated on a publication that contains unchallenged statements that presumably caused as much, if not more, harm to the plaintiff’s reputation than the allegedly defamatory statements.” (internal citation omitted). In this case, plaintiff did not take issue with the portions of the article that accused him of kidnapping entire families and pointing a gun at a baby. The Court reasoned:
Defendant’s articles portray plaintiff as a violent criminal who is capable of committing murder. According to the articles, plaintiff did not merely rob banks or break into cars. He participated in a criminal enterprise that involved kidnapping and terrorizing entire families, including children. Reporting that the FBI suspected plaintiff of killing someone—which he and/or his accomplices threatened to do on multiple occasions—could not seriously worsen plaintiff’s reputation as a violent criminal.
Because the Court of Appeals agreed that plaintiff was libel-proof, dismissal was affirmed.
This was a very fact specific case, but it did include quite a bit of history on the theory of a libel-proof plaintiff, which does not come up often. If you have a case where this theory might be an issue, this opinion is an important read.
NOTE: this opinion was released about five months after oral argument.