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Netflix has scored a First Amendment victory against a law firm that advises the rich and powerful throughout the world. On Wednesday, a California federal judge granted the streamer’s motion to strike libels claims made by the law firm of Mossack Fonseca over The Laundromat.
Mossack Fonseca is the Panama City firm that had millions of its client documents exposed back in 2016. The so-called “Panama Papers” shed light on international off-shore tax maneuvering, and many investigative journalists followed with exposes. That includes Jake Bernstein, who authored Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite, which became the basis of The Laundromat. The movie, directed by Steven Soderbergh, stars Meryl Streep as a widow searching for answers for swindled insurance money. Mossack Fonseca claimed defamation from the depiction of the firm as a group of ruthless uncaring lawyers involved in money laundering, tax evasion, bribery and other criminal conduct. The firm unsuccessfully attempted to halt the movie’s release.
U.S. District Court Judge Consuelo Marshall now tackles Netflix’s motion under California’s anti-SLAPP law, a statute allowing defendants to quickly escape litigation on matters of public interest when First Amendment activity is implicated.
Marshall concludes that the plaintiff can’t establish a probability of success, and thus, its libel claims fail.
The judge writes: “The Court finds no reasonable viewer of the Film would interpret the Film as conveying ‘assertions of objective fact,’ particularly given the statement at the beginning of the Film ‘BASED ON ACTUAL SECRETS’ which sets the stage and the disclaimer at the end of the Film that states the Film is fictionalized for dramatization and is not intended to reflect any actual person or history.”
Marshall also decides that lawyers are lawyers, and that’s important when parsing criminal behavior and the film’s impressions.
“Even assuming a reasonable viewer would view the Film as statements of actual fact, the Film does not portray Plaintiffs as directly involved in the murders, drug cartels, and other criminal activity committed by their clients as referenced in the Complaint,” continues the opinion. “The [Second Amended Complaint] alleges some of the offshore entities created by Plaintiffs ‘appears to have been utilized by some [end users] for criminal activity including, but not limited to, money laundering, tax evasion, bribery and/or fraud.’ Therefore, the Film’s portrayal of persons for whom Plaintiffs created shell companies as engaging in criminal activity is not false.”
The lawsuit isn’t completely over as Mossack Fonseca maintains legal claims including trademark dilution and false advertising that weren’t subject to the SLAPP motion.
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