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Sunday, June 3, 2012

NY Appellate Court Holds That Accusing Someone of Being Gay Is No Longer Defamation Per Se

Yonaty v. Mincolla, ____A.D.3d___(3d Dep't. May 31, 2012), is an exceedingly important case that has not gotten much press. The case was a defamation action and the legal issue was whether or not falsing accusing someone as being gay is defamation per se. This is important because if it is slander per se, then plaintiff has to allege special damages. 

Here the court refused to follow 30 year old precedent from another Department which held that making such a false accusation was indeed slander per se. As the court explained:

In regard to New York in particular, we locate "the public policy of [this] state in the law as expressed in statute and judicial decision and also [by] consider[ing] the prevailing attitudes of the community" (Debra H. v Janice R., 14 NY3d 576, 600 [2010], cert denied ___ US ___, 131 S Ct 908 [2011] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]; see Dickerson v Thompson, 73 AD3d 52, 54 [2010]). Rather than countenancing the view that homosexuality is disgraceful, the Human Rights Law, since 2002, has expressly prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, public accommodations, credit, education and housing (Executive Law § 296). Most revealing of the respect that the people of this state currently extend to lesbians, gays and bisexuals, the Legislature passed the Marriage Equality Act (Domestic Relations Law § 10-a, as amended by L 2011, ch 95, § 3) in June 2011, which was strongly supported by the Governor and gave same-sex couples the right to marry in New York, thereby granting them all the benefits of marriage, including "the symbolic benefit, or moral satisfaction, of seeing their relationships recognized by the State" (Hernandez v Robles, 7 NY3d 338, 358 [2006]). Even prior to the Marriage Equality Act, this Court had previously explained that "the public policy of our state protects same-sex couples in a myriad of ways" — including numerous statutory benefits and judicial decisions expressing a policy of acceptance (Dickerson v Thompson, 78 AD3d at 54). Similarly "evidenc[ing] a clear commitment to respect, uphold and protect parties to same-sex relationships[,] executive and local orders extend[] recognition to same-sex couples and grant[] benefits accordingly" (id.see Godfrey v Spano, 13 NY3d 358, 380-381 [2009] [Ciparick, J., concurring] [detailing the many statutes and court decisions reflecting a public policy of acceptance of lesbians, gays and bisexuals]).

We note that the most recent Appellate Division decision considering the issue in depth was decided nearly 30 years ago (Matherson v Marchello, 100 AD2d 233, 241-242 [2d Dept 1984], supra). In that case, the Second Department concluded that it was "constrained . . . at this point in time" to hold that a statement imputing homosexuality was defamatory per se in light of the then-existing "social opprobrium of homosexuality" and "[l]egal sanctions imposed upon homosexuals in areas ranging from immigration to military service" (id. at 241 [emphasis added]). Ultimately, the Court held that "the potential and probable harm of a false charge of homosexuality, in terms of social and economic impact, cannot be ignored" (id. at 242). In light of the tremendous evolution in social attitudes regarding homosexuality, the elimination of the legal sanctions that troubled the Second Department in 1984 and the considerable legal protection and respect that the law of this state now accords lesbians, gays and bisexuals, it cannot be said that current public opinion supports a rule that would equate statements imputing homosexuality with accusations of serious criminal conduct or insinuations that an individual has a loathsome disease (see Stern v Cosby, 645 F Supp 2d 258, 273-275 [SD NY 2009];Albright v Morton, 321 F Supp 2d 130, 136-139 [D Mass 2004], affd on other grounds 410 F3d 69 [2005]; [*5]Donovan v Fiumara, 114 NC App 524, 528-531, 442 SE2d 572, 575-577 [1994]; Hayes v Smith, 832 P2d 1022, 1023-1025 [Colo 1991]; Boehm v Bankers Ins. Group, Inc., 557 So 2d 91, 94 and n 1 [Fla 1990], review denied 564 So 2d 1085 [Fla 1990]; but see Gallo v Alitalia-Linee Aeree Italiane-Societa per Azioni, 585 F Supp 2d 520, 549-550 [2008] [relying, in part, on our decision in Tourge v City of Albany (285 AD2d 785 [2001], supra) in concluding that statements imputing homosexuality remain slanderous per se under New York law]). While lesbians, gays and bisexuals have historically faced discrimination and such prejudice has not been completely eradicated, "the fact of such prejudice on the part of some does not warrant a judicial holding that gays and lesbians [and bisexuals], merely because of their sexual orientation, belong in the same class as criminals" (Stern v Cosby, 645 F Supp 2d, at 275).

Mitchell H. Rubinstein

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/adjunctprofs/2012/06/ny-appellate-court-holds-that-accusing-someone-of-being-gay-is-no-longer-defamation-per-se.html

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