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Defamation

Libel, Time, Brexit, and Monaco

An allegedly bogus dossier on plaintiff was sent by defendant to a third party in 2003 -- and then hit the news in 2017. Can plaintiff sue for libel?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


From Chandler v. Berlin, decided today by District Judge Amit Mehta (moved text noted with curly braces):

Defendant Donald Berlin is a private investigator who, in February 2003, prepared what Plaintiff Christopher Chandler terms a "Pitch." {Berlin prepared the document … for one Robert Eringer, a resident of Monaco who had ingratiated himself with Prince Albert II of Monaco. Eringer had told the Prince that he could help investigate people living in Monaco who were suspected of engaging in financial improprieties, including Plaintiff and his brother.} According to Plaintiff, the Pitch is a 134-page document that contains a host of false assertions, accusing Plaintiff and his brother of engaging in various criminal activities, such as money laundering and having ties to organized crime in Russia and Russian intelligence.

Apparently, for well over a decade, the contents of the Pitch did not see the light of day. But then in November 2017[,] … Eringer, sent a portion of the Pitch to members of the British media. This disclosure caused a firestorm of negative press accounts, reporting that Plaintiff was involved in money laundering for Russian interests and espionage. In this action for libel per se, Plaintiff alleges that Berlin and his various affiliated companies are liable for the harm caused by their presenting the Pitch to Eringer in 2003, as well as Eringer's republication of portions of the Pitch in 2017.

Defendants now move to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. Treating Defendants' motion as one for summary judgment, the court grants the motion insofar as Plaintiff claims that Defendants are liable for the harm arising from the 2017 republication by Eringer. Defendants could not have reasonably foreseen in 2003 that Eringer would republish the Pitch fourteen years later in 2017. {Defendants did not have any indication in 2003 that the information contained in the Pitch would become newsworthy nearly a decade-and-a-half later. Eringer sent the Pitch to the British media only after Plaintiff became involved in public debate about "Brexit."}

With respect to the original publication of the Pitch in 2003, on the present record the court cannot find that such claim is time barred. There remains a genuine dispute of material fact as to when Plaintiff reasonably could have discovered the alleged libelous matter in the Pitch and Defendants' role in its creation.

The court, therefore, declines to enter summary judgment in Defendants' favor as to the original publication of the Pitch in 2003. The court, however, will not allow complete discovery on the merits to proceed at this time. Instead, the parties may take limited discovery on the narrow issue of when Plaintiff reasonably could have learned about Defendants' creation of the Pitch, so as to commence the one-year limitations period. The court wishes to satisfy itself that Plaintiff's libel claim as to the 2003 publication of the Pitch is timely before permitting full discovery.

You can also see the (redacted) Complaint in the case.