The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed the Pennsylvania district court’s dismissal of Renita Hill’s claims against Bill Cosby in Hill v. Cosby.
Hill was among the women who alleged that Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted her. In her lawsuit against Cosby, Hill claimed that after she shared her story in an interview, Cosby retaliated against her and other alleged victims by publishing three statements that questioned the accusers’ honesty and motivations. Based on these statements, Hill asserted claims for defamation/defamation per se, false light and intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”).
The trial court found that none of the statements were actionable as a matter of law.
The court focused primarily on the first statement, allegedly made by Mr. Cosby’s attorney and given to The Washington Post, in which his attorney stated:
The new, never-before-heard claims from women who have come forward in the past two weeks with unsubstantiated, fantastical stories about things they say occurred 30, 40, or even 50 years ago have escalated far past the point of absurdity.
These brand new claims about alleged decades-old events are becoming increasingly ridiculous and it is completely illogical that so many people would have said nothing, done nothing, and made no reports to law enforcement or asserted civil claims if they thought they had been assaulted over a span of so many years.
Lawsuits are filed against people in the public eye every day. There has never been a shortage of lawyers willing to represent people with claims against rich, powerful men, so it makes no sense that not one of these new women who just came forward for the first time now ever asserted a legal claim back at the time they allege they had been sexually assaulted.
This situation is an unprecedented example of the media’s breakneck rush to run stories without any corroboration or adherence to traditional journalistic standards. Over and over again, we have refuted these new unsubstantiated stories with documentary evidence, only to have a new uncorroborated story crop out of the woodwork. When will it end?
It is long past time for this media vilification of Mr. Cosby to stop.
Hill argued that the statement was actionable because it was a “mixed” opinion which implied the existence of defamatory facts, namely, that Hill had lied and was extorting Cosby. However, the court explained that if the underlying facts are true and disclosed, the statement is not actionable because the recipient of the statement may choose to accept or reject the opinion based on an independent evaluation of the facts. In finding that Singer’s statement was not actionable, the court found that the attorney had “adequately disclosed” the factual basis for his opinion that Hill had lied. The court further concluded that no reasonable recipient could find that Mr. Cosby’s attorney had characterized Hill and the other alleged victims as extortionists.
The second statement was allegedly made by Mr. Cosby himself during an interview with the newspaper Florida Today, in which he purportedly stated:
So today I was informed of this ratio station that is offering money for people to stand up and heckle in order to collect prizes and money.
The thing is, these people are prodding and pushing people and asking people to have a frat house mentality. Now suppose someone brings a weapon or decided to do more foolishness. There will be announcements made and the stations made some disclaimers, but what if people don’t listen to what they said and they entice violence. That’s not good for anyone.
When you go to a civil rights march or something like that, at least there are meetings and some organization to it and people understand how to behave. There may be people coming to the show and don’t know exactly what to do; there is no organization at all.
I know people are tired of me not saying anything, but a guy doesn’t have to answer to innuendos. People should fact-check. People shouldn’t have to go through that and shouldn’t answer to innuendos.
While Hill focused on the last paragraph of the statement, the court found that Cosby’s statement was a criticism of the radio station. The statement was not defamatory because it could not be interpreted to imply the existence of undisclosed defamatory facts. In reaching that decision, the court acknowledged that while Cosby characterized the accusations against him as innuendos, he did so to explain why he had not responded to the accusations, and in fact asked the public to conduct its own investigation and to draw its own conclusions. The court agreed that “asking the public to investigate and draw its own conclusions is a far cry from labelling Plaintiff (and the other women who have made similar public assertions) as liars or extortionists.”
The third statement was allegedly made by Cosby’s wife, Camille Cosby, in a letter published by The Washington Post, in which she purportedly stated:
I met my husband, Bill Cosby, in 1963, and we were married in 1964. The man I met, and fell in love with, and whom I continue to love, is the man you all knew through his work. He is a kind man, a generous man, a funny man, and a wonderful husband, father and friend. He is the man you thought you knew.
A different man has been portrayed in the media over the last two months. It is the portrait of a man I do not know. It is also a portrait painted by individuals and organizations whom many in the media have given a pass. There appears to be no vetting of my husband’s accusers before stories are published or aired. An accusation is published, and immediately goes viral.
We all followed the story of the article in “Rolling Stone” concerning allegations of rape at the University of Virginia. The story was heartbreaking, but ultimately appears to be proved to be untrue. Many in the media were quick to link that story to stories about my husband – until that story unwound.
In finding that Mrs. Cosby’s statement was not actionable, the court concluded that Hill could not satisfy the “of and concerning” requirement. Specifically, the court found that Ms. Cosby’s statement was directed more towards the media rather than the accusers. The court also found that Ms. Cosby’s reference to the infamous scandal involving false rape allegations at the University of Virginia could not reasonably be interpreted to imply the existence of specific undisclosed facts known to Ms. Cosby regarding Hill. Instead, the court concluded that it was understandable that she would defend her spouse without implicating specific facts regarding a particular accusation.
The court also affirmed the dismissal of Hill’s other tort claims. With respect to her false light claim, the court found that dismissal was warranted because Pennsylvania courts apply the same analysis for both defamation and false light. And since none of the alleged statements were defamatory, the false light claims also failed.
With respect to Hill’s claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”), the court concluded that certain courts do not allow IIED claims based on defamatory language. Even if such a claim were allowed, however, the court found that it could not go forward where the alleged statements were not defamatory.