USDC S.D. Mississippi, January 20, 2011  

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  • Court denies advocacy group's motion to dismiss defamation claim brought by doctor (a public figure), despite voluminous evidence that advocacy group researched its allegedly defamatory statements.

Plaintiff, a doctor, brought a defamation action against The Innocence Project, its co-director and one of its staff attorneys. The Innocence Project is an organization that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals. In 2008, the organization sent a letter to the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure, asking the board to revoke plaintiff’s medical license. In the letter and accompanying 750 pages of supporting documents, The Innocence Project alleged that plaintiff’s work in criminal prosecutions led to the wrongful convictions of individuals sentenced to death or life in prison. The Innocence Project issued several press releases through its web site that made similar allegations in less detail.

Plaintiff sued defendants for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which the court granted and denied in part. The court denied the motion as to the defamation claim, which defendants disputed on the grounds that plaintiff did not sufficiently allege actual malice, falsity and defamatory nature. Defendants also argued that their statements were opinion and thus not actionable as defamation.

The court first found that the doctor, a public figure, sufficiently alleged actual malice, defined as a statement made with knowledge or recklessness as to its falsity. Despite the defendants’ showing of substantial research and supporting documentation, the court held that plaintiff alleged actual malice by pleading that defendants selectively used and distorted facts, and minimized facts that would have mitigated the harm to plaintiff. With regards to the statements’ falsity, plaintiff listed 29 statements he claimed to be false. In Mississippi, a plaintiff need only give notice of the statements at issue, not provide specific information at the pleading stage as to why each statement is false.

The court also found defendants’ statements could be defamatory, if not true, as they injured plaintiff’s reputation by claiming that he was incompetent and dishonest, and had harmed the lives of innocent people. Finally, the court found that even if defendants’ statements were expressions of opinion, such expressions can still be actionable as defamatory if they imply or rely on assertions of fact.

The court also declined to dismiss plaintiff’s claims for false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It did, however, dismiss plaintiff’s claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, finding that Mississippi does not recognize such an action arising from a defamation claim.