Sean Penn Gets Forum and Some Money in Defamation Fight With Lee Daniels

Penn says that Daniels accused him of domestic violence with a comparison to Terrence Howard.

Sean Penn has scored a small success in the first round of his defamation lawsuit against Empire co-creator Lee Daniels. A letter to a judge today confirmed that the case will be tried in New York Supreme Court — where the lawsuit originally was filed — and that Daniels will be paying money associated with an aborted attempt to have the case moved to federal court.

Penn sued Daniels for $10 million in damages over comments made by the director to The Hollywood Reporter. "[Empire star Terrence Howard] ain't done nothing different than Marlon Brando or Sean Penn, and all of a sudden, he's some f—in' demon," Daniels told THR in reference to reports of domestic trouble circling Howard.

Attorneys for Daniels wanted the case in federal court, possibly because of a tactical advantage.

The lawsuit asserts that Daniels' statement likening Penn to Howard was tantamount to accusing Penn of hitting women and was "egregious." It's fairly likely that Daniels will assert a free-speech defense, and in attempting to bring the case to a federal judge, he might have seen a better venue for asserting constitutional protections and federal-case-law precedent governing defamation actions brought by public figures. To prevail in the lawsuit, Penn will have to show Daniels acted with actual malice and that the statement was capable of defamatory meaning as being more than mere opinion. Daniels also could have other defenses too, including potentially arguing that his statement was grounded in substantial truth. The legal action anticipates discovery ahead, and different jurisdictions have different rules for procedure.

Daniels cited diversity jurisdiction — he lives in New York, Penn lives in California — for removing the case to a federal court, but Penn's lawyer responded by citing the forum-defendant rule, wherein a civil action can't be removed to federal court if the defendant is a citizen of the state where the action is brought.

Rather than fight over this issue, Daniels agreed to return the case to its origins and pay Penn an undisclosed amount. The lawsuit barely has begun.

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