The House Doesn't Always Win: First Amendment Team SLAPPs Down a Casino Magnate's $60M Libel Suit
The press called it David v. Goliath.
America’s 12th richest man—casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—had filed a $60 million libel suit against the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) and two of its senior executives. At issue: an NJDC online petition written before the 2012 election, urging then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney not to accept campaign contributions from Mr. Adelson because it had been alleged that he condoned prostitution at his casinos in Macau.
After five-and-a-half years and three separate court battles, David won.
U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken threw out the lawsuit under Nevada's anti-strategic lawsuits against public participation—or anti-SLAPP—statute. The court found that Mr. Adelson failed to state a valid libel claim against the NJDC; its Chairman Marc Stanley, or its former Executive Director David Harris. Anti-SLAPP statutes prohibit lawsuits that serve to silence or censor critics by intimidating them with expensive legal costs. The case was make-or-break for the non-profit NJDC. Mr. Adelson had an estimated net worth of $32 billion dollars.
In a 57-page decision, Judge Oetken said the NJDC and its executives were protected from defamation liability under the Nevada SLAPP law. It also found that a hyperlink from the website post to a news article containing claims made in a prior suit against Mr. Adelson functioned as a footnote and therefore qualified for the fair and accurate report privilege, which shielded the NJDC from civil liability.
NJDC Chairman Marc Stanley told Law360 "it’s great day for the First Amendment…it sent a message that no matter how much money you have, you can't bully people into squelching free speech."
The NJDC and Messrs. Stanley and Harris were represented by a team of First Amendment litigators in Ballard Spahr's Media and Entertainment Law Group, including Lee Levine, Seth D. Berlin, Chad R. Bowman, Celeste Phillips, and Matthew E. Kelley.
After prevailing in federal court and again on appeal, the litigators sought repayment for fees and costs incurred in fending off Mr. Adelson's lawsuit. The court granted Ballard Spahr's motion in full, awarding the NJDC and their insurer nearly $2 million dollars.
In his ruling, Judge Oetken called Mr. Levine "one of the most highly regarded and well-known lawyers in the United States in the fields of media law, defamation, and the First Amendment" and emphasized that "the quality of briefing and advocacy by Levine and his colleagues in this case was extraordinarily high." On the matter of cost, Judge Oetken said the defense fees were "clearly reasonable…in light of prevailing market rates, the level of quality of counsel, and the complexity of the legal issues involved."