Victory for Speaking Out

Pro bono team wins summary judgment in important defamation case involving claims of an abusive relationship

News / March 5, 2021

A pro bono team led by Partners Katherine McKnight and Mark Bailen, with Associates Cara McGourty and Richard Raile, secured a significant win on Feb. 22 when the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York issued summary judgment in favor of client and jazz saxophonist María Grand. The decision is one of the first to apply New York’s recently expanded anti-SLAPP statute (“strategic lawsuit against public participation”), in a defamation case involving a non-public figure. It upholds essential First Amendment rights, particularly for people who speak up about abuse and harassment. The matter was referred to BakerHostetler through the firm’s partnership with the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund of the National Women’s Law Center.

The litigation team also included Mackenna White, a former firm associate who began work on the matter when she was in the New York office and who, with Bailen, initiated the firm’s relationship with TIME’S UP as counsel to #MeToo victims in defamation matters.

“This decision has the potential for a sweeping positive impact on First Amendment rights generally, and the rights of those individuals who want to speak about abusive relationships as part of the #MeToo movement and otherwise,” McKnight said.

Grand was a 17-year-old aspiring jazz saxophonist in 2009 when she met Steve Coleman, then 52, a well-known jazz saxophonist who would later go on to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Several years after the two met, Grand sent a letter privately to members of an advocacy group for change in the jazz industry. In the letter, Grand wrote that she believed Coleman had abused his position as her mentor to groom and manipulate her into a romantic and sexual relationship under the guise of advancing her musical career. She also described what she perceived as emotional abuse inflicted on her by Coleman during their five-year relationship and she expressed her opinion about the abusive nature of mentor relationships between young women and older jazz musicians.

In October 2018, Coleman sued Grand for defamation alleging that Grand’s letter resulted in millions of dollars in damage to his reputation and career. As part of her defense, Grand filed crossclaims stemming from dozens of disparaging social media posts Coleman published, and continues to publish, about her.

When Plaintiff’s lawsuit was filed, New York’s anti-SLAPP statute did not yet cover the speech at issue in the case so the matter proceeded through discovery. During the course of the litigation, the BakerHostetler team successfully moved to protect Grand from abusive discovery tactics and developed novel strategies for expert testimony on issues of consent and the subjective nature of a person’s perception of a relationship.

In issuing the Court’s opinion on summary judgment, U.S. District Judge Eric Vitaliano found that Grand’s letter was protected opinion and that Coleman had failed to establish “actual malice” as required by the recently amended New York anti-SLAPP statute. On the question of opinion, the Court carefully distinguished between Grand’s assertions of factual events, which Coleman did not dispute, and her ultimate opinion that he was manipulative and abusive toward her. Although Coleman had a markedly different characterization of the relationship, the parties’ disagreement was a matter of opinion about disclosed facts and, hence, was not material.

On the question of malice, Coleman contended that Grand wrote the letter out of personal spite, but the Court distinguished that type of motive from the legally cognizable question of knowledge or reckless disregard for truth, which Coleman failed to show. As to both holdings, the opinion will give individuals inclined to speak on these and other emotionally and politically difficult topics breathing room for expression, which is the goal of the applicable First Amendment standards.

The Court also noted that Coleman incurred no damages until after he filed his defamation lawsuit, republishing Grand’s statements to the world via the Court’s public docket. McKnight said the Court’s opinion is substantial and one of the first to apply New York’s recently amended anti-SLAPP statute to reject a defamation action.

“María is incredibly grateful for our support and looking forward to moving on with her life,” McKnight said.