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Defamation: False Light

Plaintiff, the aunt of a well-known of a NBA basketball player, sued defendants, a publishing company and the reporter who authored an article. Plaintiff claimed that the article was defamatory, placed her in a false light and caused her emotional distress. The article described the business and personal relationships between the player, the plaintiff and the player's agent including statements indicating that the player knew the agent because of the agent's "long time romantic relationship with his aunt." The article was also critical of the agent's structuring of the player's financial affairs.

The matter came before the court on the defendants' motion for summary judgment. The court held that for the defamation claim to survive, the plaintiff must show that the allegedly defamatory statements were false. Plaintiff alleged that the article implied that the agent was incompetent to be the player's agent and was only selected because the plaintiff was romantically involved with him. The statement complained of asserted:

[t]he man [Webber] turned to was a Detroit lawyer and CPA named L. Fallasha Erwin, known to Webber because of Erwin's longtime romantic relationship with Webber's aunt.

Defendants argued that this statement could not be the basis of a defamation claim because it is substantially accurate and the plaintiff failed to dispute this claim. Accordingly, the court found that the article was not materially false. Similarly, the statements regarding plaintiff's involvement with the player's business plan in corporations were also found to be materially accurate or were merely a matter of opinion.

Similarly, the false light claim must fail because the same privileges available to defendants under defamation also exist under the false light claim. Finally, the court concluded that the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress must fail because the conduct which plaintiff alleged to be "outrageous" (defendants conduct in writing and publishing the aritcle) was found by the court not to be "extreme and outrageous" as required by Michigan law to sustain this claim. Accordingly, the case was dismissed.

Charlene Johnson v. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., et al., Case No. 97-CV-70794-DT, 5/21/98, Zatkoff, Lawrence P. This article was prepared by William F. Frey, a partner in our Litigation Department, and previously appeared in the August, 1998 edition of the Michigan Bar Journal.

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