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Libel Lawsuit Over University Rape Allegations Can Proceed

So holds a federal district judge, rejecting the defendant's motion to dismiss (though of course without resolving, at this early stage in the lawsuit, who is telling the truth).


From Goldman v. Reddington (E.D.N.Y.), decided Friday by Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf:

Plaintiff Alex Goldman filed this action, pursuant to this Court's diversity jurisdiction, alleging defamation and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage and business relations by defendant Catherine Reddington…. In 2017, Reddington and Goldman were both students at Syracuse University. Goldman was a civil engineering student, on track to graduate with a bachelor's degree in 2018 and a master's in Business Administration ("MBA") in 2019.

Both Goldman and Reddington participated in Greek life on campus. On April 22, 2017, Goldman's fraternity and Reddington's sorority hosted a joint party at the Delta Kappa Epsilon ("DKE") fraternity house, where Goldman resided. After the party, Reddington spent the night in Goldman's room. Goldman alleges that surveillance footage shows him walking to his room at approximately 12:30 a.m., with Reddington following a few feet behind. When Goldman and Reddington awoke on April 23, 2017, it is undisputed that they were fully clothed, and that neither could remember what transpired after midnight.

The next day, on April 24, 2017, Reddington visited Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, New York, complaining of a possible sexual assault. She believed that she may have been drugged given her lack of memory. A Sexual Assault Nurse Examination ("SANE") was conducted, which showed no intoxicants present in her bloodstream other than caffeine and marijuana. She submitted items of clothing—specifically underwear, which had no visible blood, and a white leotard, which had a "blood stain in [the] crotch area." The examination found two "tears" to Reddington's labia, but "there were no internal cuts or abrasions to vaginal walls and she had smooth hymen edges." A DNA analysis indicated that her vagina was negative for male DNA.

In May 2017, Reddington reported the alleged sexual assault to the Syracuse Police Department ("SPD"). Following an investigation, Detective Michael Bates of the SPD closed the case, given the absence of any physical evidence and Reddington's statements in interviews that she had no recollection of the night in question after 12:30 a.m. Bates forwarded his report to the Onondaga County District Attorney's Office ("OCDA"), which conducted its own investigation, memorialized in a report by Assistant District Attorney Maureen Barry. Based on Barry's review of the evidence and the OCDA's own independent investigation, Barry concluded that there was "no corroborating evidence" and "no physical evidence from the SANE" to support allegations of sexual assault. The report also noted, "Ms. Reddington has stated repeatedly that she has no direct knowledge of any sexual acts that she may have engaged in," and that her "lack of memory and the lack of any witnesses … make it impossible to prove." The report recognized that sexual assaults are "inherently difficult" to prove, but ultimately concluded: "There is no credible proof of any sexual conduct in this case, consensual or non-consensual."

In approximately June 2017, Reddington filed a complaint with Syracuse, and the school's Title IX Investigator Bernerd Jacobson conducted an investigation. While Reddington initially told Jacobson that she could not recall the night in question, weeks later she reported experiencing "sudden flashes of memories following a visit to a therapist." Reddington told Jacobson that she had sexual intercourse with Goldman and was sodomized by him without her consent. Jacobson concluded that Goldman had violated the Student Code of Conduct, and he was expelled in November 2017. Reddington celebrated by visiting the DKE house the day after Goldman was expelled, "bragging" that "her 'rapist' was expelled." Goldman notes that he was seven credits shy of graduation at the time.

Following his expulsion, Goldman moved to New Jersey, enrolled in a new school (the New Jersey Institute of Technology ("NJIT")), and obtained an internship for the summer of 2018 with Bohler Engineering ("Bohler").

Goldman alleges that Reddington embarked on a campaign of defamation in a "systematic process of publicly and falsely" branding him a rapist…. The complaint identifies six specific statements as defamatory:

  1. November 17, 2017, text message to one of Goldman's friends, referring to Goldman as a "violent rapist."
  2. May 2018 text message to another one of Goldman's friends, repeatedly referring to him as a "monster."
  3. June 4, 2018, Facebook post, referring to Goldman as a "rapist" and stating that this was not the first time he "has raped someone and I want to make sure that it is the last." Reddington included a picture of Goldman, marked the location as NJIT, and tagged NJIT and Bohler.
  4. June 4, 2018, LinkedIn post, referring to Goldman as a "rapist," which tags NJIT and Bohler.
  5. June 5, 2018, Facebook post, which includes a screenshot of a direct Facebook message to Bohler. Only a portion of the message to Bohler is displayed, but the post shows Bohler's response, which states that Bohler "elected to immediately terminate the employment relationship" with Goldman upon learning of the "allegations." Reddington posts that she is "feeling happy" that Goldman lost his position, and calls him a "monster" and "a disgusting excuse for a man."
  6. June 6, 2018, Facebook review of NJIT, stating: "A school that accepts recently expelled rapists, despite it being marked on their transcript…………………. "

The Facebook and LinkedIn posts were viewed and "liked" by thousands of people, and the posts have also been shared. Individuals commented on Reddington's posts, expressing their disdain for Goldman. One user wrote, "[h]opefully they'll catch this animal. I will share this post[] in hopes that someone out there who knows him sees it …." Another individual commented, "This person needs to be off the streets" and "he will get his, it's only the beginning!!!!"

Reddington moved to dismiss, but the court allowed Goldman's claim to go forward:

First, Reddington argues that the complaint fails to adequately allege that her statements were false. While plaintiffs must offer more than a conclusory statement of falsity, Reddington attempts to impose a heightened standard contrary to New York law. Goldman unambiguously disavows the accusation of rape as "utterly unfounded," and presents specific facts through the OCDA report to plausibly allege that Reddington's claims are not true….

Reddington cautions the Court against the use of the OCDA report, noting that the District Attorney's decision not to bring criminal charges "does not conclusively establish that no sexual assault occurred." However, the criminal standard of proof is immaterial here…. While the Court is sensitive to the exceedingly difficult task of corroborating claims of sexual assault, and has questions about the SANE examination and Title IX investigation, a motion to dismiss is an inappropriate forum to deal with these concerns. Reddington is free to renew her arguments regarding falsity in a motion for summary judgment following discovery.

Reddington also asks this Court to find that her statements were "substantially true" because there are merely "fine … distinctions" between her statements and "the truth" that Goldman acknowledges. This theory falls flat—her statement that Goldman raped her, on the one hand, and his contention that the accusation is a deliberate lie, on the other hand, are worlds apart. Their narratives of what transpired would not have the same effect on any reader. On a motion to dismiss, without the benefit of discovery, and considering the Court's duty to read the allegations in the complaint as true, this Court cannot find that Reddington's statements were substantially true; that is, it cannot find that Goldman raped Reddington, especially when the OCDA arrived at a contrary conclusion. Instead, the Court finds that the facts alleged in the complaint and its attachments allow Goldman to satisfy the liberal pleading standard and plausibly allege that Reddington published false statements….

Reddington next argues that the defamation count should be dismissed because the text message she sent to Goldman's friend in May 2018 referring to him as a "monster" is an opinion, and therefore constitutes protected speech. While hyperbole is typically not actionable, the Court finds that this statement survives as an actionable mixed opinion because it implies that it is based on facts, not disclosed to the reader, which support the opinion. See Levin v. McPhee, 119 F.3d 189, 197 (2d Cir. 1997) (Conjecture may be actionable if it "impl[ies] that the speaker's opinion is based on [her] knowledge of facts that are not disclosed to the reader." (citations omitted))….. Even if a reader could also reach the opposite conclusion, at this stage, the Court is tasked with assessing whether "any reading of the complaint supports a defamatory connotation." Here, given "the broader social context and surrounding circumstances," the recipient of the text could infer that Reddington called Goldman a monster to convey a fact, namely that he raped her….

Reddington further argues that her June 6, 2018, Facebook review of NJIT is not actionable because it was not "of and concerning" Goldman. The post stated: "A school that accepts recently expelled rapists, despite it being marked on their transcript …." Reddington argues that there was "no surrounding context," yet the review followed other social media posts, made two days earlier, in which she called Goldman a rapist, tagged NJIT, added a picture of Goldman, and linked to his social media pages. Because NJIT was tagged, it received a notification of her posts, and therefore, when it saw the review two days later, it presumably would have known that it referred to Goldman. While the review does not identify Goldman by name, it is plausible that those who knew him at the time would have known about the rape accusation and recognized that he was the subject of the review. The Court concludes that, drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, a reasonable jury could conclude that the review on NJIT's Facebook page was "of and concerning" Goldman….

The parties dispute whether the statements at issue are "arguably within the sphere of legitimate public concern," and thus whether the gross irresponsibility standard applies [under New York libel law]. However, the Court need not reach the issue because even if gross irresponsibility is the requisite level of fault, Goldman satisfies that standard. The complaint repeatedly alleges that Reddington "knowingly" and intentionally made false statements. On a motion to dismiss, the Court accepts this assertion as true, considering the additional facts pleaded by Goldman, such as the insufficiency of evidence to corroborate sexual assault and Reddington's lack of memory. Intentional lies not only satisfy, but surpass, the culpability of "gross irresponsibility," which signifies "something more than … negligence." …

Goldman has [also] adequately pled all elements of tortious interference with prospective economic advantage or business relations. Reddington "specifically targeted" Goldman's relationships with Syracuse and Bohler, allegedly making "knowingly false statements designed to interfere" with his standing. Her direct communications with these institutions "evidence a calculated purpose … to convince these third parties to cease their business relationships with" him. Although Reddington argues that her statements were driven by a desire to prevent further sexual assaults, Goldman satisfies the requirement of "wrongful means" by plausibly alleging that she committed the independent tort of defamation.

Reddington also argues that Goldman has not suffered any injury attributable to her conduct, but he was expelled from his university and fired from his internship. If Reddington reported false accusations, and Goldman was subsequently expelled and fired, these amount to cognizable injuries. Moreover, contrary to Reddington's theory, the fact that Syracuse conducted its own investigation does not eviscerate the complaint; if the investigation was premised on lies she propagated, then her interference would still be the primary cause and the "but for" cause of his expulsion.

Still, Goldman has failed to allege any injury related to his standing at NJIT…. In an affidavit submitted in connection with his Order to Show Cause, Goldman stated, "now I am nervous about my situation at NJIT as they are evaluating my standing at the university." … [But] the vague statement that Goldman is "nervous" does not allege any concrete harm, and thus fails to meet the threshold requirement of pleading injury [for a tortious interference claim]. Accordingly, while Goldman is not foreclosed from pursuing his claim with respect to Syracuse and Bohler, his claim that Reddington interfered with his relationship with NJIT is dismissed without prejudice….