WASHINGTON (CN) - Trump dossier author Christopher Steele and a London-based corporate intelligence company won the dismissal Monday of defamation claims from three Russian businessmen.
Filed with the D.C. Superior Court in April, the suit by Mikhail Fridman, Petr Aven and German Khan took issue with a two-page portion of the Steele dossier that describes the men’s close ties to the Kremlin and says they gave advice to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Fridman, Aven and Khan are all investors in Russian bank Alfa Bank and said that their reputations were damaged when Steele and opposition research firm Fusion GPS arranged briefings with reporters and other people, including a man who worked for a private foundation connected to Senator John McCain, R-Ariz.
Steele and corporate intelligence company Orbis Business Intelligence asked D.C. Superior Court Judge Anthony Epstein in May to dismiss the lawsuit under Washington D.C.'s anti-SLAPP law, which is meant to deter parties from filing lawsuits to tamp down opposing political speech.
In a 24-page opinion filed Monday, Epstein wrote Steele and Orbis Business Intelligence had done enough to show the allegations in the dossier about the businessmen are an issue of public interest in the United States and that the businessmen qualify as "limited-purpose public figures."
"A key part of plaintiffs' case is that [the dossier] implicitly alleged that plaintiffs aided 'the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,' and plaintiffs cannot contend both that defendants in [the dossier] accused them of cooperation with Russian interference in the election and that these statements did not involve an issue of public interest in the United States," Epstein wrote.
In addition, Epstein wrote the businessmen did not show the allegations against them in the dossier are false, a key part of proving a claim of defamation. Epstein said the businessmen's claim that Steele left out "supporting facts" from the dossier would at most show negligence, which would not be enough to support a defamation claim.
"Because plaintiffs have not offered evidence supporting a clear and convincing inference that defendants made any defamatory statement in [the dossier] with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity, they have not offered evidence that their claims are likely to succeed on the merits," Epstein wrote.
Alston and Bird attorney Christy Hull Eikhoff serves as lead counsel for Steele in United States and praised Epstein's decision this afternoon.
"We think Judge Epstein's order is thorough, well-reasoned and firmly supported in the law and this dismissal is an example of constitutional principles at work," Eikhoff said in an interview.
Eikhoff took heart in particular with a footnote of the opinion where Epstein chided the businessmen for claiming Steele lacks First Amendment rights.
The U.K.-born Steele may not be a U.S. citizen, but Epstein called it ironic for such an argument to come from “nonresident aliens with Russian and/or Israeli citizenship … while petitioning a U.S. court for a redress of their grievances and invoking a constitutional right to discovery.”
“Plaintiffs do not explain why nonresident aliens have the same rights as U.S. citizens to bring defamation actions, but nonresident aliens do not have the same rights as U.S. citizens to defend themselves,” Epstein wrote.
Alan Lewis, an attorney for the businessmen at the firm Carter Ledyard and Milburn, said he expects the opinion to be reversed.
"We strongly disagree with the court's decision, which we will almost certainly appeal," Lewis said in a statement. "We are, however, pleased that the court agreed that we have adequately proved Mr. Steele's negligence in making unsupported accusations that our clients had something to do with alleged efforts to interfere in the 2016 election - which they did not. We respectfully disagree with Judge Epstein on a number of points and are confident that the appellate court will reinstate the plaintiffs' claims."
In addition to this suit in D.C. Superior, Fridman, Aven and Khan also brought similar complaints over the dossier in a New York state court and in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Both cases are still pending.
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