Richard Simmons Loses Transgender Defamation Case against National Enquirer ; Sanctions Imposed for Frivolous Lawsuit

 

The National Enquirer, a sensationalist tabloid, reported in a cover story that Richard Simmons, the quirky work-out guru, had “undergone shocking sex surgery to change from a man to a woman.” The headline read, “Richard Simmons: He’s Now a Woman!”. Simmons strongly denied the statement and sued the tabloid for defamation, the tort of making an untruthful and demeaning statement about another person to a third person.

A false statement is not sufficient to establish a case for defamation. In addition, the assertion must subject a person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or cause that person to be shunned or avoided. Stated differently, the statement must result in damage to reputation. Without such injury, a claim for defamation will not be successful in court.  For example, a newspaper reported that the plaintiff had died. Turns out he was well and alive. He sued the paper for defamation, and the case was dismissed. The court, while recognizing that the statement was false, held that dying is not demeaning since, alas, we are all mortal and will all die.

Note: The issue of whether a statement is reasonably susceptible to a defamatory interpretation is a question of law (an issue within the judge’s authority to decide as opposed to a jury; an issue that involves application or interpretation of legal principles or a statute) for the trial court and not a decision for the jury.

In the Richard Simmons case, the court analogized misidentification as transgender to misidentification of race, being sick with cancer, and being homosexual. Most recent court decisions have rejected the notion of such claims being defamatory.                  

Simmons’ attorney argued, “There are giant segments of society in this country who endorse the kind of prejudice and hatred and shunning of transgender persons in a way that is dramatically different than the way we treat race in this country.”  The newspaper’s attorney responded, “There is nothing inherently bad about being transgender.”

The court stated, “While being transgender may be held in contempt by a portion of the population, the court will not validate those prejudices by legally recognizing them.”

This ruling is among the first to address whether the label of being transgender is damaging to one’s reputation. The case thus sets a precedent that being described as transgender is not defamatory

The fake story was leaked to the paper by Simmons’ former assistant who allegedly sought to blackmail the exercise star. The tale had added credibility because Simmons, who aggressively sought media attention during much of his career, had not been seen publicly for awhile. Simmons’ spokesperson countered that Simmons had reduced his schedule following knee surgery, but he continued to work with clients to help them with motivation and weight loss.

Not surprisingly, Simmons is appealing the court’s decision to dismiss his case.

The defamation decision was issued on September 1, 2017.  The court just ruled (late March, 2018) that Simmons must pay the tabloid $128,625 for general costs of defending the case and lawyer fees. The media company had sought $220,000. Such awards are used to compensate a losing party for time, resources and legal fees when a lawsuit or a defense argument is frivolous. This means that the argument has little or no chance of success because of lack of legal merit. Sanctions are typically reserved only for those cases that are wholly without merit, or brought for a plainly improper purpose, such as to harass the other side.

For more information, see Simmons v. American Media, Inc., 2017 WL 5325381 (Cal.Super., 9/1/2017).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1)      Do you think Simmons will be successful on appeal? Why or why not?

2)      Do you think the judge’s imposition of sanctions against Simmons were justified in this case? Why or why not?