Photo of Lee S. Brenner

In an age where the luxurious lives of reality housewives populate millions of televisions throughout the country, the day-to-day activities of wealthy suburban moms are well known to Americans. Stephanie Smith, a wealthy mother of five young children living in the Pacific Palisades near the luxurious Los Angeles coastline, was one such woman. One noteworthy thing set Stephanie Smith apart, however – her multi-million-dollar marijuana empire.

Smith was a commercial real estate developer and landlord who leased her properties to marijuana growers. Those growers allegedly paid her more than three times the standard rent and produced tens of thousands of weed plants. On December 13, 2017, Smith’s weed-growing warehouses became public knowledge after police raided her home and discovered the plants.

Newspapers immediately picked up the story, calling Smith a “Queenpin” and her property “a weed fortress.” Smith v. Palisades, No. B292107 2019 WL 4744765 (Cal. Ct. App. Sept. 30, 2019) at *1. Palisades News, a local community newspaper, published an article stating that Smith was “busted” for running an illegal marijuana-growing operation of a size normally associated with a “drug lord” and that Smith made millions of dollars per month from the operation. Id. Three months after the raid, Smith sued Palisades News for defamation (libel), false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress in Smith v. Palisades News.


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On July 10, 2019, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed with prejudice a defamation and false light lawsuit filed by a dancer at a New Jersey Strip club against the New York Daily News, holding that the plaintiff had failed to plead actual malice with respect to her claims.

The case stemmed from a December 2017 Daily News article about the government-ordered closing of the strip club Satin Dolls, best known as a frequent filming location for a popular television series. The article noted that New Jersey state authorities had ordered the shutdown of Satin Dolls after accusing the club of engaging in illegal activity, such as alleged prostitution, lewd activity, racketeering, and extortion-related charges. The article was accompanied by a photograph of two Satin Dolls employees posing with merchandise related to the television series. One of the photographed employees, Diane LoMoro, subsequently sued the Daily News for defamation, claiming that the article falsely linked her to alleged criminal conduct; that the paper allegedly doctored the photo to make Ms. LoMoro appear “fatter, larger, uglier, blotchier, discolored, disproportionate, and grotesque”; and that the Daily News allegedly invaded Ms. LoMoro’s privacy by portraying her in a false light.


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The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York recently dismissed a claim of copyright infringement against Mic Network, Inc. over its use of a partial screenshot of a New York Post article in a subsequent publication. The screenshot featured a photograph of a man in a bar, with the caption “Why I won’t date hot women anymore” on one side and a selection of the article’s text on the other. The Court found Mic’s use of the screenshot was protected by the fair use defense.

The case arose when photographer Stephen Yang sued Mic for copyright infringement over Mic’s use of the photograph Yang licensed to the New York Post for its April 2017 article, which recounted the dating experience of a man living in New York. The article created a great deal of buzz on social media and provoked heated debate and substantial criticism because of its provocative content.

In response to this debate, Mic published its own article, “Twitter is skewering the ‘New York Post’ for a piece on why a man ‘won’t date hot women,‘” which featured the screenshot, including a portion of Yang’s photograph. Yang sued for copyright infringement over Mic’s use of his photograph. Mic responded with a motion to dismiss Yang’s claim on the grounds its use of the photograph was protected by the fair use doctrine. (As evidenced by its title, Mic’s article discussed and added to the criticism surrounding the original article.)


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On September 18, 2019, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal held in Hullick v. Gibraltar Private Bank & Trust Co. & Hayworth that a corporation’s board of directors’ discussions during a board meeting did not constitute defamation because the board’s intra-corporate communications were not “published” or communicated to a third party. Since the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United fortified the notion that corporations are people, the Florida Court of Appeal allows corporations to talk to themselves—without fear of defamation lawsuits.

Hullick v. Gibraltar Private Bank & Trust Co. & Hayworth is set against the backdrop of an allegedly well-documented $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme purportedly orchestrated by a prominent Florida lawyer (now disbarred and serving a 50-year sentence in federal prison).[1] Gibraltar Private Bank and Trust Company, one of the appellees (co-defendant below), was one of two banks where the lawyer allegedly laundered money.[2]


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The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the dismissal of a case against actor James Woods over a tweet he posted during the 2016 presidential campaign. Woods, an outspoken conservative, was sued by plaintiff Portia Boulger, who described herself in her complaint as “a very active volunteer and pledged convention delegate for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.”

The case arose from inaccurate information shared on social media. On March 11, 2016, Donald Trump held a Republican primary campaign rally in Chicago. That evening, the Chicago Tribune posted a photograph on its Twitter account of a woman at the Trump rally giving a Nazi salute. The next day, a Twitter user posted the photograph, together with a separate photograph of Boulger, and a caption identifying Boulger as an organizer for Bernie Sanders. The Twitter user wrote (falsely) that “[t]he ‘Trump Nazi’ is Portia Boulger, who runs the Women for Bernie Sanders Twitter account. It’s another media plant.”


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On April 23, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s finding that Anastasia, Beverly Hills, Inc., a cosmetics company, established a fair use defense in an infringement action brought by competitor Hard Candy, LLC. Hard Candy originally sued, alleging that Anastasia’s “Gleam Glow Kit” makeup product infringed the Hard Candy trademark. Anastasia’s Gleam Glow Kit is a flip-open makeup palette containing four different shades of facial highlighter, one of which was named “Hard Candy.” The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s finding that (1) there was no likelihood of confusion between Anastasia’s highlighter makeup shade called “hard candy” and the branded makeup of the Hard Candy company; and (2) Anastasia established a descriptive fair use defense against the trademark infringement alleged by Hard Candy.

To prevail on its trademark infringement claim, a plaintiff must establish that a defendant’s use of a mark creates a likelihood of confusion with its trademark. The District Court applied a seven-factor test to determine whether Anastasia’s Gleam Glow Kit created a likelihood of consumer confusion. The Court of Appeals agreed that the “similarity of mark” factor weighed in favor of Anastasia, because while Anastasia uses the same words, all in capital letters (HARD CANDY), the Court must consider the “overall impression created by the use of the mark as a whole, rather than comparing the individual features.”


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Georgia insurance adjuster and consultant Bruce Fredrics’ filed a lawsuit against a reporter relating to a proposed television exposé on Mr. Fredrics and his business.  In Frederics v. Hon. Brad Raffensperger, Georgia Secretary of State, et al., Case No. 2019CV317438 (Aug. 2, 2019), Mr. Fredrics sought effectively to stop Harry Samler, the host of the local news’ station’s pro-consumer investigative show “Better Call Harry,” from publishing any news stories about his dealings with a homeowner who claimed he defrauded her, and who had subsequently turned to Mr. Samler to publicize her alleged negative experience.  Notably, Mr. Samler’s investigation dealt not only with Mr. Frederics’ dealings with this homeowner, but also the consumer complaint filed by that homeowner and resulting investigation against Mr. Frederics by a Georgia regulatory agency.

But Mr. Samler’s employer, CBS46, had other plans to protect its lead investigative reporter (and, ostensibly, one of its most popular segments): it filed a motion to intervene and to join a motion to strike filed by Mr. Samler that asked the Georgia Superior Court to make a finding that Mr. Frederics’ lawsuit impermissibly curtailed CBS46’s constitutionally-protected newsgathering activities.  Mr. Frederics opposed both motions, first claiming that, because CBS46 was neither a defendant in his actions nor the target of any of his specific claims, it had no right to intervene in the action.  The Superior Court promptly disposed of that argument, noting that “[t]he media’s right to intervene in legal actions that seek to impede its ability to gather and report the news is well established.”
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Earlier this year, a unanimous Supreme Court held that a copyright owner may not file an infringement lawsuit until the Copyright Office has acted to register the owner’s application.  This decision resolves a long-standing circuit split over when a copyright owner may file an infringement lawsuit – either when the application has been submitted (the “application” approach) or when the Copyright Office registers the copyright (the “registration” approach).  In the wake of this ruling for the “registration” approach, content creators are expected to make greater use of the Copyright Act’s preregistration process as a way of protecting their work before it has been published.
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Two federal courts recently dismissed defamation claims brought against the New York Times and the Kansas City Star, finding the subject articles employed standard investigative journalism techniques that immunized the newspapers from liability under state defamation laws.

In Croce v. New York Times Co., No. 18-4158 (6th Cir. July 17, 2019), the 6th Circuit upheld the dismissal of an Ohio State University cancer researcher’s defamation claim, finding that a “reasonable reader” would interpret the article as presenting both sides of the controversy.  The suit arose after the Times published an article examining Dr. Carlo Croce’s cancer research in the context of a broader piece about the inherent conflicts present when large research institutions reap millions of dollars in grant money for “star” researchers, and then are put in the position of investigating those researchers’ methods.
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