The California Court of Appeal recently dismissed several claims asserted against the famous professional boxer, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., by his ex-fiancé, Shantel Jackson.
Mayweather and Jackson had been involved in an on-again, off-again romantic relationship. Jackson alleged that she had ended her relationship with Mayweather after he had become violent on several occasions. Before the end of their relationship, however, Jackson was purportedly pregnant with twins, and at Mayweather’s request, provided him with a copy of a sonogram of the twins.
After Jackson allegedly refused Mayweather’s attempts to reconcile, Mayweather posted on his Facebook and Instagram accounts: “the real reason me and Shantel Christine Jackson @MissJackson broke up was because she got an abortion, and I’m totally against killing babies. She killed our twin babies. #ShantelJackson #Floyd Mayweather #TheMoneyTeam #TMT.” Mayweather also posted a copy of the sonogram and a summary medical report regarding the pregnancy.
The next day, Mayweather discussed the purported abortion during a radio interview, claiming that Jackson terminated the pregnancy because she was concerned about the impact it would have on her appearance. Mayweather also stated that she had undergone extensive cosmetic surgery procedures, including on her nose, chin, and cheeks.
Based in part on these allegations, Jackson filed a complaint against Mayweather asserting claims for, inter alia, invasion of privacy (public disclosure of private facts), invasion of privacy (false light portrayal), defamation, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Mayweather filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike those five causes of action.
When ruling on an anti-SLAPP motion, courts engage in a two-part test. First, the defendant must establish that the claim arises from activity protected by the anti-SLAPP statute. Second, if the defendant makes the requisite showing, the plaintiff must demonstrate the merit of the challenged claim by establishing a probability of success on the merits.
The Court here found that the first prong had been satisfied because Mayweather and Jackson are high-profile individuals who are the subject of extensive media scrutiny. The Court thus concluded that Mayweather’s postings and interview comments about the relationship, the pregnancy and its termination, and Jackson’s alleged cosmetic surgery, constituted celebrity gossip that concerned an issue of public interest.
With respect to the second prong, the Court found that Jackson had failed to establish a probability of success on the five causes of action to the extent that they were based on Mayweather’s alleged statements about Jackson.
Invasion of privacy (public disclosure of private facts). To prevail on a claim for invasion of privacy based on public disclosure of private facts, the plaintiff must demonstrate (1) public disclosure (2) of a private fact (3) that would be offensive and objectionable to the reasonable person and (4) is not of legitimate public concern.
Focusing on the fourth element of legitimate public concern, that Court observed that “newsworthiness” is a complete bar to liability for the publication of truthful information. The Court acknowledged that Mayweather’s statements about Jackson concerned private information and that disclosure would be offensive to the reasonable person. The Court nonetheless concluded that “given Jackson’s high profile and voluntary disclosure on social media of many aspects of her personal life, the publication of those otherwise intimate facts must necessarily be considered newsworthy under the broad definition of that term developed and applied by the Supreme Court . . . .”
Jackson was, however, allowed to proceed with her claim to the extent it was based on Mayweather’s posting of the sonogram and medical report because posting those items constituted a “morbid and sensational” prying into Jackson’s private life that served no legitimate public purpose.
Defamation. To prevail on a claim for defamation, a plaintiff must establish (1) a publication that is (2) false, (3) defamatory, (4) unprivileged, and (5) has a natural tendency to injury or causes special damage. The parties did not dispute that Jackson was a public figure, which therefore required her to demonstrate “actual malice,” i.e., that Mayweather’s statements were made with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of whether they were false.
Jackson argued that Mayweather’s posts about who ended the relationship and the reason for the breakup contained false statements of fact. The Court agreed that Mayweather’s statements were not opinion, but rather, assertions of fact capable of being proven true or false. The Court found, however, that “more is required.” Specifically, Jackson had failed to contest Mayweather’s declaration that she had an abortion, and as a result, Mayweather’s statement that he ended the relationship for that reason was not defamatory. The Court concluded that “the allegedly false part of the posts (the cause of the breakup) did not expose Jackson to contempt, ridicule or other reputational injury.” In reaching that decision, the Court noted that even Jackson’s own evidence of harm centered on the consequences of disclosing the abortion, not on Mayweather’s role in, or reason for, ending the relationship.
The Court also found that Mayweather was not liable for defamation based on his statements that Jackson had undergone extensive cosmetic surgery. In reaching that conclusion, the Court highlighted that Jackson did not contest that she had cosmetic surgery. While Jackson asserted that Mayweather had lied when he stated that she had surgery to change her nose, chin, and cheeks, the Court observed that Jackson failed to address how that alleged exaggeration created a different and negative effect from which the truth would have produced. The Court thus found that falsity could not be proven because the challenged statement was substantially true.
The Court similarly refused to consider Jackson’s claim that she was defamed by Mayweather’s statement that she had an abortion due to her concern about her appearance. Jackson had failed to include that allegation in the complaint, precluding the Court from reaching the merits of that argument.
Invasion of privacy (false light portrayal). Jackson’s false light claim was based on the same statements as her claim for disclosure of private facts; namely, Mayweather’s assertion that he ended the relationship because Jackson had an abortion and his comments about her alleged cosmetic surgery procedures. In dismissing this claim, the Court found that it suffered from the same “fatal defects” as her defamation claim: “Mayweather’s allegedly false explanation for the couple’s breakup did not expose Jackson to ‘hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy; his exaggerated description of the extent of Jackson’s cosmetic surgery was, in substance, truthful.”
Intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The Court found that none of Mayweather’s radio interview statements or postings, including the posting of the sonogram and medical record, could be characterized as “atrocious conduct” that was intolerable in civilized society. As a result, Mayweather’s statements could not form the basis of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.
Jackson was allowed to proceed with her other causes of action to the extent they were not premised on Mayweather’s protected speech.