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WPIX Granted Two Summary Judgments Where No Gross Irresponsibility

By Bruce S. Rosen and Lisa Washburn

Two separate New York state judges have dismissed defamation suits against WPIX -TV in New York, a Tribune Media station, in both cases because the plaintiffs failed to prove the station and its reporters engaged in "gross irresponsibility," New York State's intermediate malice standard for private plaintiffs and matters of public concern.

In December, a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge granted summary judgment to WPIX in a suit over a 2013 story about a landlord's unusual method of shaming a "deadbeat" tenant. Landlord Mary Nicoletti posted a sign on her brownstone stating: "My tenant FRED GALLIPOLI didn't pay his rent for three (3) Almost (4) months!!"

The reporter said she tried to speak with Gallipoli, but there was no answer at his door. She also reported that he had gone on record to say Nicoletti declined his check. Discovery showed that tenant Gallipoli was indeed at least three months late with his rent at the time the story aired. WPIX defended the defamation claim based on truth; however, the Court did not reach the merits.

Instead, in the Dec. 3, 2018 ruling granting WPIX's summary judgment motion, Kings County Supreme Court Justice Paul Wooten applied the gross irresponsibility standard set out in 1975 in Chapadeau v. Utica Observer-Dispatch, and held that the WPIX defendants "did not act in a grossly irresponsible manner." Justice Wooten observed that there appeared to be no reason for WPIX to doubt the Nicolettis' veracity, and noted that a mention of new graffiti on the property following the posting of the sign was factual and did not state that the plaintiff was to blame. The ruling in Fred Gallipoli v. Mary Nicoletti et al., was WPIX's second summary judgment win in six weeks.

The first dismissal concerned a 2014 defamation suit against the station for using an incorrect first name of a teacher who allegedly bullied a student. In that case, a WPIX reporter attended a community activist's press conference with the mother of the allegedly bullied student and her 12-year-old daughter. The mother incorrectly identified (and the station reported) the teacher's first name as "Starlight" Rainbow, but the teacher's name was actually "Cynthia" Rainbow.

In a bizarre coincidence, Starlight Rainbow was also a teacher in a different Brooklyn public intermediate school a few miles away. The Plaintiff did not see the news report for months after it aired; she sued after she felt her pleas to correct the news report were being ignored by the station (the piece was removed from the station's website upon the complaint being filed).

New York County State Supreme Court Justice Robert D. Kalish ruled on Oct. 22, 2018 that WPIX was not liable for failing to correct the article in a timely fashion, and further held that the reporter was entitled to rely on the mother's representations. Starlight Rainbow v. WPIX, Inc., and Magee Hickey.

Plaintiffs in both matters have since filed notices of appeal.

Bruce S. Rosen is a DCS member at McCusker, Anselmi, Rosen & Carvelli, P.C. in Florham Park, NJ and Manhattan and he was assisted by associate James Harry Oliverio in both cases. Lisa Washburn is Assistant General Counsel at Tribune Media Company in Chicago.

Plaintiff in the Gallipoli matter was represented by Phillip Hines at Held & Hines in Brooklyn, N.Y. and the Nicolettis were represented by George Haboussi, Jr., also of Brooklyn.

Plaintiff in the Starlight Rainbow matter was represented by Daniel Clifton and Julian Gonzales of Lewis, Clifton & Nikolaidis, P.C. in Manhattan.

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