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Case analysis: Bellino v Judge

Feb 20, 2019, 07:23 AM
US case analysis: Bellino v Judge
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Date : Feb 20, 2019, 07:21 AM
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New York City-based Frank D'Angelo and Lyndsi Allsop, of Loeb & Loeb LLP, write that, in a defamation case concerning statements made by cast members of a TV show about a co-star’s ex-husband during a live interview, a state court granted an anti-SLAPP motion as to statements regarding plaintiff’s business and marriage but denied a motion as to a statement that the plaintiff was “going to jail.”

Plaintiff James Bellino, ex-husband of former “Real Housewives of Orange County” cast member Alexis Bellino, commenced a lawsuit against current “Real Housewives” stars Shannon Beador and Tamra Judge, alleging that they defamed him and his trampoline park business, Jump Management Co. LLC, during a live interview about the show at the Irvine Improv Comedy Club. Bellino also asserted claims for false light, trade libel, and intentional and negligent interference with prospective economic advantage based upon the same allegedly defamatory statements.

During the interview, Judge referred to Bellino as “shady” and described him using an expletive, suggested that his marriage and divorce from his ex-wife Alexis was a “sham” and that Bellino wanted spousal support because “[e]verything is in [his ex-wife’s] name,” and added that Bellino “is going to jail.” During that same interview, Beador stated: “I heard they don’t [have the trampoline business anymore] because they were sued . . . I won’t let my kids go [to trampoline parks] because people get paralyzed . . . and apparently that happens.”

Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP)

Bellino alleged that Judge’s statement regarding his going to jail constituted defamation per se and that the remaining statements constituted defamation per quod. Beador and Judge filed anti-SLAPP motions seeking to strike the complaint in its entirety. The court granted Beador’s motion, but granted in part and denied in part Judge’s motion.

As the court noted, when deciding anti-SLAPP motions, a two-step approach is required: First, the court determines whether the statements at issue constitute protected speech; and, second, if the speech is protected, the court determines whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a likelihood of prevailing on his or her claim.

As to the first step, Beador and Judge argued that their speech was protected because they spoke in a public forum concerning an issue of public interest. Although Bellino did not contest that the comments were made at a public forum, he disputed that the comments about him were of public interest. The court agreed with Beador and Judge, concluding that because Bellino appeared on the show as the husband of a “Real Housewives” cast member, Judge’s comments about Bellino’s character and divorce were matters of public interest for “Real Housewives” viewers. Accordingly, the court labeled Judge’s comments as protected speech under California’s anti-SLAPP statute. Although the court described Beador’s statements regarding Bellino’s trampoline park business as a “closer call,” it concluded that they too were protected because the subject of how “Real Housewives” cast members and their spouses make money is also of interest to viewers.

As to the second step of the anti-SLAPP analysis, the court held that Bellino demonstrated a likelihood of succeeding on his defamation per se claim regarding Judge’s statement that he “is going to jail.” According to the court, that statement appeared on its face to be an assertion of fact rather than opinion, given the interview’s context: “[Defendants] were ‘dishing’ about the show’s participants. Part of the amusement value was from the gossip — the relaying of juicy facts about themselves and others.” The court held that Bellino was not likely to succeed, however, on his defamation per quod claims regarding Judge’s statements about his character and divorce and Beador’s statements about his trampoline park business, because on all of those claims Bellino failed to submit competent evidence of special damages. As the court added, Beador did not expressly reference Jump Management or the name of the trampoline park (Skypark), nor did she clearly state that someone had in fact been injured there.

The court disposed of Bellino’s remaining claims in a similar fashion. Because his claims for false light and trade libel against Beador mirrored his defamation claims, the court dismissed those claims as well. Similarly, because Bellino’s claim for false light against Judge mirrored his defamation claims against her, the court declined to dismiss it in its entirety. Finally, the court dismissed the claims against Beador for intentional and negligent interference with economic advantage, concluding that Bellino failed to present evidence of specific actual or prospective economic relationships with which Beador interfered, much less evidence that Beador was aware of any such relationships.

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