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Couple Accused Of Slavery May Pursue Libel Claim

NEW YORK (CN) - A white Long Island couple accused of keeping their black nanny under slave-like conditions has convinced a New York appeals court that they have a viable defamation claim against ex-nanny Cindy Carter and a domestic workers' union that depicted the couple as "racists who physically abused and economically exploited their domestic worker."

Fontaine and Donald Sheridan employed Carter, 31-year-old from Barbados, as a domestic worker in their Massapequa Park home for about 2.5 years. During that time, Fontaine allegedly beat Carter, used racial slurs, paid her only $300 a week for working long hours and threatened to report her to immigration authorities. On July 6, 2005, Carter and Fontaine got into a physical altercation on the Sheridans' front lawn, for which Fontaine was arrested. She later pleaded guilty to harassment in the second degree.

Newspapers in the New York metropolitan area published at least six articles about Carter's situation, prompting the Domestic Workers United to protest in front of the Sheridans' home. They used Carter as an example of the allegedly pervasive abuse and exploitation of domestic workers. The Sheridans responded with a lawsuit alleging defamation and libel.

Because the protest was over a matter of public concern, the Sheridans had to show that the union acted in a "grossly irresponsible manner" by distributing flyers containing allegations gleaned from the news.

"Although the factual allegations as to DWU's malice may have been somewhat anemic," the court wrote, "that is not a basis to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action."

Similarly, it held that the Sheridans have a clear defamation per se claim against Carter, since she failed to establish that the truth of her allegations entitled her to summary judgment.

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