Carroll v. Trump

Docket Number20-cv-7311 (LAK)
Decision Date29 June 2023
PartiesE. JEAN CARROLL, Plaintiff, v. DONALD J. TRUMP, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of New York

Roberta Kaplan, Joshua Matz, Shawn Crowley, Matthew Craig Trevor Morrison, Michael Ferrara, Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

Alina Habba, Michael T. Madaio, Habba Madaio & Associates LLP Attorneys for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

LEWIS A. KAPLAN, DISTRICT JUDGE.

This is a defamation case brought by writer E. Jean Carroll against President Donald Trump, as he then was, for statements Mr. Trump made in June 2019 shortly after Ms. Carroll publicly accused him of sexual assault. In those statements, Mr. Trump denied Ms. Carroll's accusation, stated that he “has no idea who this woman is,” and suggested that she fabricated her accusation for ulterior and improper purposes, including to increase sales of her then-forthcoming book in which she discusses having been sexually assaulted by Mr. Trump and other men.

In a second and very closely related case (Carroll II), Ms. Carroll sued Mr. Trump for the alleged sexual assault itself and for defamation based on a statement that Mr. Trump published on his social media platform in October 2022 that was substantially similar to his June 2019 statements. That case was tried in April and May 2023. The jury unanimously found that Mr. Trump had sexually abused Ms. Carroll and defamed her in his October 2022 statement.[1] It awarded Ms. Carroll a total of $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages: $2.02 million for her sexual assault claim, and $2.98 million for her defamation claim.[2]

In this case (Carroll I), Ms. Carroll seeks damages and other relief for defamation for Mr. Trump's June 2019 statements only.[3] The matter now is before me on Mr. Trump's motion for summary judgment dismissing the action on four grounds:

(1) Mr. Trump is entitled to absolute presidential immunity
(2) Mr. Trump's statements were not defamatory per se and Ms. Carroll cannot establish special damages
(3) the majority of Mr. Trump's statements were nonactionable opinion
(4) Ms. Carroll consented to Mr. Trump's allegedly defamatory statements.[4]

He argues also that punitive damages in any case would be unwarranted on Ms. Carroll's defamation claim. His arguments are without merit.

Facts
Mr. Trump's Allegedly Defamatory June 2019 Statements

Ms. Carroll's accusation that Mr. Trump sexually assaulted her first became public on June 21, 2019, when New York magazine published on the Internet an excerpt from her then-forthcoming book in which Ms. Carroll described Mr. Trump's alleged assault of her, which she referred to as “rape.” Over the next several hours and days, Mr. Trump issued three allegedly defamatory statements in response to Ms. Carroll's accusation.

Statement One

Two hours and seventeen minutes after Ms. Carroll's accusation became public, Mr. Trump published this statement on Twitter[5]:

“Regarding the ‘story' by E. Jean Carroll, claiming she once encountered me at Bergdorf Goodman 23 years ago. I've never met this person in my life. She is trying to sell a new book-that should indicate her motivation. It should be sold in the fiction section.
“Shame on those who make up false stories of assault to try to get publicity for themselves, or sell a book, or carry out a political agenda-like Julie Swetnick who falsely accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It's just as bad for people to believe it, particularly when there is zero evidence. Worse still for a dying publication to try to prop itself up by peddling fake news-it's an epidemic.
“Ms. Carroll & New York Magazine: No pictures? No surveillance? No video? No reports? No sales attendants around?? I would like to thank Bergdorf Goodman for confirming that they have no video footage of any such incident, because it never happened.
“False accusations diminish the severity of real assault. All should condemn false accusations and any actual assault in the strongest possible terms.
“If anyone has information that the Democratic Party is working with Ms. Carroll or New York Magazine, please notify us as soon as possible. The world should know what's really going on. It is a disgrace and people should pay dearly for such false accusations.”[6]
Statement Two

The next day, Mr. Trump made the following comments that were reported in the national press and published in a White House press release entitled “Remarks by President Trump Before Marine One Departure” issued on June 22, 2019:

[Reporter]: [Y]ou had said earlier that you never met E. Jean Carroll. There was a photograph of you and her in the late 1980's-
[Trump]: I have no idea who this woman is. This is a woman who has also accused other men of things, as you know. It is a totally false accusation. I think she was married-as I read; I have no idea who she is-but she was married to a, actually, nice guy, Johnson-a newscaster.
[Reporter]: You were in a photograph with her.
[Trump]: Standing with coat on in a line-give me a break-with my back to the camera. I have no idea who she is. What she did is-it's terrible, what's going on. So it's a total false accusation and I don't know anything about her. And she's made this charge against others.
“And, you know, people have to be careful because they're playing with very dangerous territory. And when they do that-and it's happening more and more. When you look at what happened to Justice Kavanaugh and you look at what's happening to others, you can't do that for the sake of publicity.
“New York Magazine is a failing magazine. It's ready to go out of business, from what I hear. They'll do anything they can. But this was about many men, and I was one of the many men that she wrote about. It's a totally false accusation. I have absolutely no idea who she is. There's some picture where we're shaking hands. It looks like at some kind of event. I have my coat on. I have my wife standing next to me. And I didn't know her husband, but he was a newscaster. But I have no idea who she is-none whatsoever.
“It's a false accusation and it's a disgrace that a magazine like New York-which is one of the reasons it's failing. People don't read it anymore, so they're trying to get readership by using me. It's not good.
“You know, there were cases that the mainstream media didn't pick up. And I don't know if you've seen them. And they were put on Fox. But there were numerous cases where women were paid money to say bad things about me. You can't do that. You can't do that. And those women did wrong things-that women were actually paid money to say bad things about me.
“But here's a case, it's an absolute disgrace that she's allowed to do that.”[7]
Statement Three

Finally, on June 24, 2019, Mr. Trump stated in an interview with the newspaper The Hill: “I'll say it with great respect: Number one, she's not my type. Number two, it never happened. It never happened, OK?”[8]

Ms. Carroll's Defamation Claim

Ms. Carroll initiated this lawsuit against Mr. Trump in November 2019 for defaming her in these statements. The case originally began in a state court in New York before being removed to this Court for reasons explained in the Court's previous decisions.[9] Ms. Carroll alleges that:

“When [her] account [of the alleged assault] was published, Trump lashed out with a series of false and defamatory statements. He denied the sexual assault. But there was more: he also denied ever having met Carroll or even knowing who she was. Through express statements and deliberate implications, he accused Carroll of fabricating her allegations in order to increase book sales, carry out a political agenda, advance a conspiracy with the Democratic Party, and make money. He also deliberately implied that she had falsely accused other men of assault. For good measure, he insulted her physical appearance.”[10]

The core of Ms. Carroll's defamation claim is that Mr. Trump lied in accusing her of fabricating her sexual assault allegation against him in order to increase sales of her book and for other improper purposes and that he thus caused Ms. Carroll professional and reputational harm as well as emotional pain and suffering.

Mr. Trump's Answer

In his formal answer to Ms. Carroll's complaint, which originally was filed in state court in February 2020, Mr. Trump raised nine affirmative defenses, including as relevant here that:

[t]he [c]omplaint fails to state a cause of action,”
Plaintiff's claim is barred because defendant is immune, under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, from suit in state court while serving as President of the United States,”
[t]he allegedly defamatory statements are privileged or protected by one or more immunities, including, but not limited to, under the Constitution of the United States,”
Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages as a matter of law,”
Plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged defamation per se,” and • Plaintiff has failed to plead damages with the required specificity.”[11]

Noticeably missing from this list is any mention of the absolute presidential immunity defense that Mr. Trump now asserts for the first time.[12]

Discussion
Legal Standard

The standards for summary judgment are well established. In brief:

“Summary judgment may be granted only where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party . . is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. . . . In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all factual inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. . . . To grant the motion, the court must determine that there is no genuine issue of material fact to be tried. . .
...

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