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‘Serial Scammer’ Label Didn’t Defame Tenant

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Three reporters are off the hook after a federal judge tossed a defamation suit over articles that allegedly depicted a woman as a "serial scammer," "serial squatter" and "criminal."

From April to December 2010, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat ran a series of articles detailing Gwendolyn Smith's legal troubles with former landlords that resulted in a $42,500 default judgment and an eviction.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ruled Thursday that the coverage was not defamatory. The articles relied on trial briefs, statements made in open court and interviews with Smith' former landlords, Barbara Wilt and Connie Cook, who said Smith could not pay rent and utilities. The last article in the series reported that Smith had been cited in Oregon for criminal theft by deception for failure to pay rent.

Smith filed her defamation case in May 2011, alleging three Press Democrat reporters had invaded her privacy by improperly using sealed court documents. She also said they had implied that she was a serial scammer and "serial squatter," and that they had falsely claimed to have attempted to interview her.

In dismissing the case, Illston found the reporters did nothing wrong in quoting statements made during the trial and court documents for their articles, as the articles had the same "gist and sting" as the allegations against Smith, and "are absolutely privileged as fair and true reports of judicial proceedings."

"The fact that the term 'serial squatter' may not have been used in a court document or proceeding doesn't defeat the application of the privilege to that statement," Illston wrote. "Here, the allegation that Smith was a 'serial squatter' has the same 'gist and sting' as the allegations that Smith repeatedly ran scams where she moved into housing units with no intention of paying rent."

Though Smith also complained that the reporters mischaracterized her as a criminal, she failed to identify any specific instances in the articles, Illston found. "However, even if Smith was able to identify particular passages that implied that Smith was a criminal, that claim would likewise fail because any such implication falls within the 'gist and sting' of the Press Democrat's reporting that Smith had been cited with felony counts of theft by deception for allegedly failing to pay rent by authorities in Oregon," Illston wrote.

Illston further found that Smith did not submit any evidence showing the reporters did not attempt to contact her for an interview.

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