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Developer ruled limited public figure, loses defamation suit

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  1. Libel and Privacy

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   NEW YORK   ·   Libel   ·   Oct. 17, 2005

Developer ruled limited public figure, loses defamation suit

  • Even though a real estate developer had been out of the news since 1980, he remained a limited purpose public figure subject to the actual malice standard, which he could not prove, a New York judge ruled in dismissing his defamation claim against a newspaper.

Oct. 17, 2005  ·   A developer who made news in the 1970s remains a limited purpose public figure who did not prove The Buffalo News libeled him with knowledge of or disregard for the truth, a New York court ruled in dismissing the claim.

The ruling that Lawrence E. White, who was active in the real estate market and Buffalo redevelopment in the late 1970s, was a public figure, “made it a totally different case,” said Joseph M. Finnerty of Stenger & Finnerty, media counsel for The Buffalo News. “It put a much higher burden of proof on the plaintiff and in response he limited his case simply to the headline.”

In May 1994, The Buffalo News wrote a news article headlined “Unscrupulous operation gouges nursing home,” which concerned the operation of the Hamlin Terrace Health Care Center and White’s association with it. An editorial a few days later criticized White’s operation of the nursing home and money management. White sued, claiming both pieces were libelous.

In March 2003, Judge John P. Lane of the New York Supreme Court, a trial court, ruled that even though White had been out of the news since 1980, he remained a limited purpose public figure — a legal classification finding that White could only be considered a public figure for a limited range of issues.

In order to win a defamation case, plaintiffs who are public figures or limited purpose public figures must prove actual malice — that the media defendant knew of or recklessly disregarded the falsity of the reporting.

Even though most of the articles about White were written in the late 1970s, “a public figure, once established, remains a public figure for later comment on that controversy or subject matter,” Lane wrote in the 2003 decision. He added, “the totality of his past conduct and business practices supports a finding that he is a limited purpose public figure.”

After the 2003 ruling requiring the stronger burden of proof, White dropped the claim that the article and editorial were defamatory and instead said that only the headline defamed.

“We argued that as long as the headline accurately indicates the subject matter of the article, it’s not actionable,” Finnerty said. “It has to be considered with the article. A headline gets all types of benefits.”

Lane ruled Oct. 4 that White “takes particular issue with the words ‘unscrupulous’ and ‘gouges.’ While these words are a far cry from flattery, they are supported in the findings contained in HUD’s Inspector General’s investigation reported by the news media. These words are not shockingly offensive in today’s society nor were they in 1994.”

(White v. Berkshire-Hathaway; Media counsel: Joseph M. Finnerty, Stenger & Finnerty, Buffalo, N.Y.)CM

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