What is the difference between “defamation” and “false light”?

What is the difference between “defamation” and “false light”?

I am sometimes retained to take over from other attorneys when a defamation case has gone sideways. Through this experience, I am afforded the opportunity to see how other attorneys approach defamation cases, and where they went wrong.

In these instances, I have seen that other attorneys routinely allege claims for both defamation and false light. Is that a good approach? With this article I will address the difference between the two claims, and whether it makes sense to allege both in the same complaint. I’ll use the case of Shantel Jackson v. Floyd Mayweather, Jr. as an example. The summary provided below is taken from the complaint and subsequent Court of Appeal opinion, and is not offered as a statement of facts.

The sad tale of the actress and the boxer (not to be confused with Robin Givens and Mike Tyson).

Shantel Jackson filed an action against Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in September 2014. Jackson’s complaint recounted a detailed story of the on-again, off-again abusive relationship between a young aspiring model and actress and a highly successful, well-known professional boxer.

Jackson, then 21 years old, met Mayweather while working as a hostess at an event in Atlanta in 2006. The two dated and developed a romantic, intimate relationship. Jackson soon moved to Las Vegas to live with Mayweather.

Jackson and Mayweather were a highly publicized celebrity couple for a number of years and were at one point engaged to be married. However, the relationship frayed. Jackson alleged that in August 2012, shortly after Mayweather’s release from jail following his conviction on a domestic violence charge involving another woman, she and Mayweather had an argument during which he twisted her arm, choked her and forcibly took away her cell phone so he could look through it. The couple reconciled after Mayweather apologized and promised he would never again assault Jackson.

In early April 2013, after continued difficulties between them, Jackson decided to end her relationship with Mayweather and moved to Los Angeles. Mayweather persuaded her to try again to make the relationship work, and Jackson returned to Las Vegas two weeks later. However, within a few days the couple resumed arguing, and Jackson again told Mayweather she was going to leave him. At one point during this period Mayweather grabbed Jackson, restrained her and pointed a gun at her foot while asking, “Which toe do you want me to shoot?” Jackson alleged that while forcibly restraining her and with the gun still pointing at her, Mayweather said he would not allow her to leave. During this period, according to Jackson, Mayweather kept her a virtual prisoner in his Las Vegas home, monitoring her activities and only allowing her to leave if accompanied by one of his employees.

Jackson moved back to Los Angeles in June 2013. The following month she discovered someone had broken into a storage unit she rented in Southern California and stolen personal property she valued at more than $1 million. Mayweather subsequently confessed he had arranged for the removal of the items and told Jackson he would return them if she came back to him. In late July 2013 Mayweather told Jackson he would “put things out about” her unless she agreed to return to Las Vegas. When she refused to return, Mayweather posted her Los Angeles address on his social media pages and falsely suggested he lived there. Jackson alleged she became concerned for her safety when Mayweather’s fans came to the address and then were disappointed to learn he was not there.

Mayweather continued to importune Jackson to return to him and to attempt to make their relationship work. Jackson agreed but said she would maintain her own home in California. In November 2013 Jackson became pregnant by Mayweather. Jackson alleged she told Mayweather and one friend of her pregnancy, but no one else. A December 2013 sonogram revealed Jackson was carrying twins. At Mayweather’s request Jackson gave him a copy of the sonogram. According to the complaint, “In January of 2014, Ms. Jackson’s pregnancy terminated and Mr. Mayweather was so informed.”

When Jackson refused to move back to Las Vegas during this period, Mayweather became verbally abusive and threatening. During an argument in February 2014 in Los Angeles, Mayweather once again physically restrained Jackson, blocking the door to his condominium and preventing her from leaving for more than one hour.

On April 12, 2014 Jackson attended a basketball game with the rapper Nelly and posted a photograph of the two of them on her social media pages. Mayweather threatened to post photographs he had taken of Jackson sleeping naked if she did not take down the Nelly photograph. Jackson rejected the demand and also refused to reconcile with Mayweather. In response, on May 1, 2014 Mayweather posted on his Facebook and Instagram accounts, “the real reason me and Shantel Jackson broke up was because she got an abortion, and I’m totally against killing babies. She killed our twin babies.” Mayweather also posted a copy of the sonogram of the twin fetuses and a summary medical report regarding the pregnancy. Media outlets, including TMZ, republished the sonogram and medical report. The following day Mayweather again discussed Jackson’s abortion during a radio interview and also stated she had undergone extensive cosmetic surgery procedures.

Based on the allegations regarding Mayweather’s posting of information about Jackson’s pregnancy and its termination, including the sonogram and medical report, and the broadcast of the statement she had cosmetic surgery on her face and body, Jackson’s complaint asserted causes of action for invasion of privacy (public disclosure of private facts), invasion of privacy (false light) and defamation. There were a number of other claims as well. Jackson v. Mayweather (2017) 10 Cal. App. 5th 1240, 1245–47.

With our summary completed, let’s look at the elements of the two claims – defamation and false light.

Elements of Defamation

Defamation “involves (a) a publication that is (b) false, (c) defamatory, and (d) unprivileged, and that (e) has a natural tendency to injure or that causes special damage.” Price v. Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 (2011) 195 Cal. App. 4th 962, 970.

So to win on a defamation claim, the Plaintiff must prove that a false, unprivileged, defamatory statement was communicated to at least one other person. The “defamatory” element just means that it is not enough simply that it is a false statement, it must have “a natural tendency to injure.”

Elements of False Light

False light is a species of invasion of privacy, based on publicity that places a plaintiff before the public in a false light that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and where the defendant knew or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matter and the false light in which the plaintiff would be placed. Price, supra

So to prevail on a false light claim, the Plaintiff must prove (1) that the statement was made to the “public”, (2) that the statement was highly offensive, and (3) that the Defendant knew or acted in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the statement and the false light in which the Plaintiff would be placed.

“Public” means that the publication must go to enough people to amount to the public, as opposed to only one other person in a defamation claim. A false light claim further requires the additional elements of “highly offensive” and “reckless disregard.”

For this reason, suing for both defamation and false light is a pointless act, because false light requires far more of a showing. If you can show defamation, you don’t need false light, since the damages would be the same. And if you can’t satisfy the elements of defamation, you can’t prevail on false light.

As the Court put it in Jackson v. Mayweather:

“‘A “false light” cause of action is in substance equivalent to a libel claim, and should meet the same requirements of the libel claim, including proof of malice [where malice is required for the libel claim].’ ” See generally Fellows v. National Enquirer, Inc. (1986) 42 Cal.3d 234 [holding statutory limitations on defamation actions apply when a false light action is based on publication that is defamatory].) Indeed, “[w]hen a false light claim is coupled with a defamation claim, the false light claim is essentially superfluous, and stands or falls on whether it meets the same requirements as the defamation cause of action.”

In the Jackson case, Mayweather responded to the complaint with an anti-SLAPP motion, claiming that Jackson could not satisfy the elements for defamation and false light. The alleged false statements – that Jackson alleged were both defamatory and put her in a false light – were that (1) Mayweather ended their relationship because Jackson had aborted the twins, and (2) that she had undergone extensive cosmetic surgery. Jackson claimed these statements were false because (1) she, not Mayweather, had ended the relationship, and (2) she did not have cosmetic surgery on some of the body parts identified by Mayweather.

The trial court denied Mayweather’s anti-SLAPP motion, but the Court of Appeal reversed and granted as to the defamation and false light claims.

Given that Jackson has not contested the truth of Mayweather’s declaration that she had an abortion, the statement that Mayweather ended his relationship with Jackson for that reason does not appear to be defamatory. On its face, the allegedly false part of the posts (the cause of the breakup) did not expose Jackson to contempt, ridicule or other reputational injury.

[As to the statement about her surgeries,] Jackson fails to address how Mayweather’s exaggeration of the extent of cosmetic surgery she tacitly concedes she had (on her breasts and buttocks) created a different and negative effect on the radio audience from that which the truth would have produced. As Mayweather argues, falsity cannot be shown if the challenged statements appear substantially true. To bar liability, it is sufficient if the substance of the charge be proved true, irrespective of slight inaccuracy in the details. Minor inaccuracies do not amount to falsity so long as the substance, the gist, the sting, of the libelous charge be justified. Put another way, the statement is not considered false unless it would have a different effect on the mind of the reader from that which the pleaded truth would have produced.

It is certainly conceivable that surgical enhancement of the face is different for the reputation of an actress or model from the augmentation or sculpting of other parts of her body. But Jackson presented no evidence in opposition to Mayweather’s motion, expert or otherwise, that would permit a finder of fact to draw that distinction. It was her burden to do so. Thus, the radio comments concerning cosmetic surgery do not support a defamation cause of action.

Jackson thus lost on both her defamation and false light claims.

I won’t go so far as to state that there would never be a place for a false light claim in a complaint, but I cannot even come up with a hypothetical situation where it would be a good strategy to allege both defamation and false light in the same complaint.

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Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP

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Tustin, CA 92780

(714) 954-0700

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View Aaron Morris, Trial Attorney and Partner at Morris & Stone, with emphasis on Free Speech and Defamation Law.

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