Ex-Times Columnist Can Sue Movie Studio for Libel

MANHATTAN (CN) — A New York appeals court refused Tuesday to dismiss libel claims from a former New York Times against the producers of a 2014 romantic-comedy.

Best known as the former writer of The Ethicist column in The New York Times, Randy Cohen sued Broad Green Pictures two years ago in Manhattan Supreme Court. He claimed the 2014 breakup comedy “Learning to Drive,” an adaptation of a July 2002 New Yorker article of the same title by Cohen’s ex-wife Katha Pollitt, defamed him as “a mendacious, profligate philanderer.”

The four-member appeals panel unanimously affirmed a 2017 decision denying the movie studio defendants’ motion to dismiss.

“At this early stage of the litigation, defendants failed to establish that plaintiff was a public figure or that this was a matter of public concern, to which the ‘actual malice’ standard applies … or that the subject matter of the trailer is within the sphere of legitimate public concern,” the panel wrote. It consisted of Justices Peter Moulton, John Sweeny Jr., Rosalyn Richter and Troy Webber.

The movie producers, Broad Green Pictures and Learning to Drive Movie, were represented by Katherine Bolger from Davis Wright Tremaine.

Bolger filed a motion to dismiss Cohen’s claims for defamation in September 2016, and New York County Supreme Court Judge Lucy Billings rejected it on Oct. 23, 2017.

Billings found that “(a)lthough defendants point to factual differences between the accounts given in the film versus in the article, these differences are irrelevant in light of the film’s specific identification of the author’s former husband as the adulterer and womanizer.

“The trailer’s attribution of adultery and womanizing to the author’s former husband makes it reasonably susceptible of interpretation by persons who know plaintiff, the author’s former husband, that he is an adulterer and womanizer.”

Cohen’s attorney Richard Altman said he was pleased by the Tuesday ruling, and that “we look forward to the opportunity to vindicate Mr. Cohen’s reputation.”

Altman said in a statement with co-counsel David Feige with Giskan Solotaroff & Anderson: “As the court has made clear, the defendants in this case wrongly attributed the misdeeds of another person to our client. We look forward to Broad Green pictures acknowledging and rectifying this wrong.”

Cohen said the movie, which starred Patricia Clarkson and Sir Ben Kingsley, claims to be “based on a true story,” and identifies Pollitt as the author of the article on which it is based. He added that those who know him or his wife “are likely to identify and recognize him as the character portrayed in the film, and to consider him to have been an unfaithful husband, and an adulterer.”
Since the film claims to be “based on a true story,” Cohen said, the studio cannot argue that it is a “work of pure fiction.”

In addition to his “Ethicist” column for The New York Times, Cohen is credited with coming up with the “Top 10” bit during his seven-year stint as a staff writer for “Late Night with David Letterman.”

Representatives for Broad Green Pictures and Learning to Drive Movie did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.

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