Friday, January 20, 2017
A few days before he was sworn in as President of the United States, the complaint in Zervos v. Trump was filed in New York state court alleging a cause of action for defamation, raising several constitutional issues.
First, the issue of whether the chief executive of the United States is entitled to a stay of the proceedings while he occupies the office seems to be resolved by the United States Supreme Court's unanimous 1997 decision in Clinton v. Jones. Jones was decided on a separation of powers issue, of course, given that Paula Jones had filed an action alleging sexual harassment by Bill Clinton before he became president. However, the general reasoning seems applicable. The Court in Jones stated that it was not persuaded of the seriousness of the alleged risks that this decision will generate a large volume of politically motivated harassing and frivolous litigation and that national security concerns might prevent the President from explaining a legitimate need for a continuance, noting that it had confidence in the ability of judges to deal with both concerns.
Second, a complaint of defamation almost always raises a First Amendment concern. Interestingly, here one question would be whether the plaintiff, Summer Zervos, was a public figure under Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc, so that she would have to prove "actual malice" on the part of the defendant. It would seem that Zervos appearance on Trump's television show, The Apprentice, would make her at least a limited public figure. Moreover, even if not then, her decision to "speak publicly" about her interactions with Trump after sexual harassment became an issue in the campaign, most likely made her a limited public figure.
Yet even if Zervos is a public figure, the complaint alleges that Trump made the statements knowing that they were false or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. The complaint makes allegations of numerous statements, including embedding a tweet with a photograph of Zervos:
Interestingly, the complaint also alleges that "all these liars" - - - the women who claimed Trump had sexually harassed them - - - "will be sued after the election is over." Trump has been called a "libel bully" in an article that briefly made headlines for being stifled by the American Bar Association for fear of it provoking the very conduct it analyzed. But it seems as if the tables have been turned.
It's far too early for predicting outcomes, but meanwhile ConLawProfs could use this as an interested Con Law problem - - - or an exam question.