Inventing Anna Defamation Case Against Netflix Can Go Forward

March 26, 2024   |   Tags: ,

From today's decision in Williams v. Netflix, Inc. by Chief Judge Colm Connolly (D. Del.), which denies Netflix's motion to dismiss (for more backstory, see here):

Plaintiff Rachel DeLoache Williams has sued Defendant Netflix, Inc. based on Netflix's portrayal of Williams in its docudrama series Inventing Anna…. Here, at least two sets of alleged defamatory statements are actionable at the motion to dismiss stage. Williams's 9th set of alleged defamatory statements reads as follows:

After several scenes about the problems with the credit cards at the Hotel and the private museum tour, there is a long scene in which Noah is shown meeting Williams and suggesting to her that they leave immediately because of the "bad situation." At first, Williams says that the problems are over and suggests that they stay but Noah persists, and she gives in. She finds Anna who is alone in her room, drinking heavily and depressed.

Williams tells her that they are leaving, making a bogus excuse. Sorokin begs her not to leave her, but Williams leaves anyway. She and Noah pack and leave the Hotel immediately, leaving Sorokin alone with a hotel guard stationed outside her room.

Williams's 10th set of alleged defamatory statements reads as follows:

NEFF: Please, Rachel abandoned Anna. Kicked her when she was down, and left her alone in some foreign country. Rachel's happy to call herself Anna's friend when it meant free shit, trips to Morocco, but as soon as times got tough … Some friend.

Williams plausibly alleges that both sets of statements are false statements of fact and defamatory. For falsity, she argues that Williams did not "abandon" Sorokin when Sorokin was "alone, depressed and in trouble" but rather that Williams told Sorokin she was leaving in advance, that Sorokin had company when Williams left, and that Sorokin did not appear to be upset. For defamatory meaning, Williams argues that she "is falsely portrayed as a fair-weather friend who abandoned Sorokin when she was alone, depressed and in trouble in Morocco, and needed help and support" and that "[t]hese are negative personal traits or attitudes that Williams does not hold."

Netflix argues that these sets of statements are substantially true because

Plaintiff did leave Morocco before Sorokin to go to France for work and vacation. And, before knowing Sorokin was a fraud, Williams also decided to "give the relationship some space." Thus, these scenes are substantially true. And debating if this makes Williams "disloyal," cannot be proven true or false.

But the above statements do more than simply show that Williams left Morocco prior to Sorokin or wanted to give the relationship space. As Williams alleges, the statements indicate that Williams "abandoned Sorokin when Sorokin was alone, depressed and in trouble in Morocco." And whether Sorokin was in a troubled state and Williams left her at that point can be proven true or false.

Netflix alternatively argues that the 9th and 10th sets of statements are not defamatory, arguing that

Plaintiff alleges these scenes are defamatory because they show Williams "abandon[ing] Sorokin" in Morocco.

That is not what happens. When "Noah" suggests to Williams they leave Morocco because it seems unsafe, Williams pushes back, not wanting to leave Sorokin. But the Series shows Sorokin wholly unconcerned and uncaring as guards seem to threaten Williams and watch her every move. A reasonable viewer would not fault Williams or Noah for taking their safety seriously and ultimately choosing to leave. In this episode, Kacy also refers to Williams as "a real friend" and a "good person," further eliminating any defamatory meaning. And, while Neff criticizes Williams for leaving, the journalist character (based on Pressler) defends her, asking: "But does a friend charge another friend's credit card without permission?"

Netflix does not dispute that the scenes portray Williams leaving Sorokin when she was alone, depressed, and in trouble. Instead, Netflix points to other scenes in the series to show that the 9th and 10th sets of statements do not have defamatory meaning. But in context, these other scenes do not nullify the portrayal of Williams leaving Sorokin in a troubled state. Nor do they rectify the statements potentially "expos[ing] [Williams] to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace, or [to] induce an evil opinion of [her] … and [] deprive [her] of [] friendly intercourse in society" for abandoning a friend who is drinking heavily and depressed.

Accordingly, at least with respect to the 9th and 10th sets of statements, Williams has stated a cognizable defamation claim under New York law. And I need not decide at this stage of the pleadings whether the remaining alleged defamatory statements are actionable….

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