Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Latest installment of Trump family litigation saga includes tortious interference claim against media

A leaked Trump 1040 from 2005
Former President Donald Trump has sued his niece, Mary Trump, and The New York Times Co. in the latest installment of intrafamilial litigation related to Mary's 2020 book, Too Much and Never Enough.

Filed yesterday in Dutchess County, New York, this latest lawsuit (complaint at CNS; Times's own coverage) mainly alleges breach of contract in the earlier settlement of litigation by Mary against Donald over the handling of the estate of Donald's father, Fred, who died in 1999.  I wrote on the course blog for my Trump Litigation Seminar in 2020 about another lawsuit, which is ongoing, by Mary against Donald over the estate of her father, Fred, Jr.; and about a suit by Donald's brother Robert, who died in 2020, which failed to enjoin publication of Mary's book.

The instant complaint alleges that Mary Trump was the source of Trump tax records published by The New York Times in its 2020 exposé.  The bits that interest me are counts of tortious interference with contract and of "aiding and abetting" tortious interference—or the civil equivalent of aiding and abetting, more accurately described as "providing substantial assistance or encouragement"—against the Times.  The complaint alleges that the Times "relentlessly" encouraged Mary to leak the tax records while knowing full well that doing so would breach her confidentiality agreement.

An intentional tort, tortious interference is not confined to business or media, though it's often classified as a "business tort," its usual injury being economic loss.  And it's often included in mass comm law treatments as a "media tort," because it's sometimes deployed against news media.

The paradigmatic case of an interference tort leveled against news media is the threat of Brown & Williamson Tobacco to sue CBS for its 1995 60 Minutes interview with whistleblower-scientist Jeffrey Wigand in violation of Wigand's non-disclosure agreement.  There is a classic scene in the feature film about the matter, The Insider, in which CBS producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) loses his marbles upon admonition by CBS counsel Helen Caperelli (Gina Gershon) that truth is not a defense to interference, rather is an aggravating factor.  "What is this, Alice in Wonderland?" Bergman wonders aloud.  The instant Trump case is compelling for its similarity to the Insider facts.  

Interference as a media tort in the public imagination, or at least the lawyer-public imagination, surfaces periodically.  I wrote about the issue in 2011 when Wikileaks for a while threatened to spill the secrets of big banks.  (That fizzled.)  The high incidence of non-disclosure agreements in settlements of Me Too matters, and the former President's enthusiasm for NDAs combined to fuel another spurtive engagement with the issue in recent years. 

The issue prompts sky-is-falling missives from media because the role of, or any role for, the First Amendment as a defense to tortious interference is fuzzy.  In reality, the problem rarely gets that far.  Without unpacking the nitty gritty, it suffices to say that tortious interference has public policy built into its rigorous heuristic.  It is prohibitively difficult to press the tort against a publisher operating with at least a gloss of public interest.

The Trump complaint tries to circumnavigate that problem by accusing the Times of profit motive in its pursuit and publication of the tax records.  But the history of tort litigation against mass media is littered with failed attempts to drive the stake of profit-making through the heart of the journalistic mission.  Whatever degradations have afflicted mass media in our age of misinformation, no court is going to buy the argument against the Times on that score, at least not on these facts—cf. Palin v. N.Y. Times (N.Y. Times), in which the alleged editorial misconduct is substantially more egregious.

The case is Trump v. Trump, Index No. 2021-53963 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. filed Sept. 21, 2021).

No comments:

Post a Comment