PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — A Ninth Circuit panel on Friday upheld a decision to toss porn actress Stormy Daniels’ defamation lawsuit against President Donald Trump, finding he was merely expressing his opinion when he questioned Daniels’ story of being threatened to keep quiet about an alleged affair between them.
Daniels, real name Stephanie Clifford, claimed a man threatened her in a Las Vegas parking lot in 2011 to keep quiet about an intimate relationship she allegedly had with Trump beginning five years before.
After Daniels and her then-attorney Michael Avenatti released an artist’s sketch of the man who she claimed threatened her, a Twitter user posted a comparison between Daniels’ ex-husband and the alleged attacker.
Trump replied to that user’s post on Twitter and wrote, “A sketch years later about a nonexistent man. A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know it)!”
Daniels sued for defamation, saying Trump’s tweet painted her as fabricating both the crime and the existence of an assailant.
In 2018, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero dismissed the claims under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, finding Daniels failed to make a proper claim under the Texas law where she lives.
Daniels appealed to the Ninth Circuit, arguing the TCPA, Texas’s version of an anti-SLAPP statute, should never have been applied in federal court. She sought reversal of Otero’s ruling in order to proceed to discovery and a trial on the merits of her claim.
At a Feb. 4 hearing before the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena, California, Trump’s attorney Charles Harder said the president has a right to tweet any opinion or hyperbole and that Daniels failed to show the president acted with any malice.
The three-judge Ninth Circuit panel on Friday sided with Harder’s argument, affirming Otero’s ruling and finding Daniels’ complaint failed to plead an actionable false statement by Trump.
“Under Texas law, a statement that merely interprets disclosed facts is an opinion, and, as noted, statements of opinion cannot form the basis of a defamation claim,” the ruling stated. “Viewed through the eyes of an objectively reasonable reader, the tweet here reflects Mr. Trump’s opinion about the implications of the allegedly similar appearances of Ms. Clifford’s ex-husband and the man in the sketch.”
Harder did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 8-page unsigned and unpublished opinion by U.S. Circuit Judges Kim Wardlaw and Jacqueline Nguyen and Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas also said Trump’s tweet didn’t contain any facts that had not already been disclosed publicly.
“Because the tweet juxtaposing the two images was displayed immediately below Mr. Trump’s tweet, the reader was provided with the information underlying the allegedly defamatory statement and was free to draw his or her own conclusions,” the opinion said.
Further, Otero did not abuse his discretion when he denied Daniels leave to amend her complaint, the panel held.
Daniels’ present attorney Clark Brewster did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.
Nguyen is a Barack Obama appointee while both Thomas and Wardlaw were appointed by Bill Clinton.
Daniels’ defamation claim was filed as part of her federal lawsuit against Trump in which she sought release from a nondisclosure agreement she signed to keep quiet about her alleged affair with the president.
Otero dismissed that lawsuit as moot and awarded Trump’s legal team attorneys fees after the president filed a covenant with the court asserting the agreement with Daniels was unenforceable.