Hollywood Docket: Alec Baldwin Can Pursue Slander Claim in Parking Space Fight Suit

Alec Baldwin
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Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin can pursue a defamation claim against a man he says lied about being punched in the face during their widely-publicized dustup over a Manhattan parking spot.

In November 2018, Wojciech Cieszkowski allegedly stole a space Baldwin's wife had been saving, they got into an argument and Baldwin was arrested after the man told police the actor punched him in the jaw. Baldwin denies hitting him, and took a plea deal that required participating in an anger management program.

Afterward, Baldwin talked about the incident on the talk show circuit and Cieszkowski sued for assault, battery and slander per se. Judge David B. Cohen dismissed the slander claim in December 2019, finding Baldwin's statements were hyperbole and his opinion.

Baldwin countersued for defamation and false imprisonment, arguing Cieszkowski caused him to be arrested for a crime that didn't happen.

Cohen dismissed the false imprisonment claim explaining that because Cieszkowski is a civilian, not a cop, Baldwin would have needed to show he encouraged police to arrest him without probable cause.

"Assuming, arguendo, that the plaintiff did call the police with the malicious intention of having the defendant falsely arrested, the facts assumed are still insufficient to establish that the plaintiff actively induced the officer to arrest the defendant, rather than merely reporting the incident," writes Cohen. "Despite the defendant’s claim that the plaintiff lied when he told the police that the defendant punched him, the defendant does not allege that the police used anything other than their own judgment in arresting him."

On the defamation claim Cohen largely sided with Baldwin, only agreeing to dismiss statements Cieszkowski made to the District Attorney's office. (People are generally given immunity for relevant claims made as part of a judicial proceeding.)

On a motion to dismiss, the facts a plaintiff (here Baldwin) alleges are treated as true and he's given the benefit of the doubt. Cohen found Cieszkowski failed to "definitively prove the truthfulness" of his version of events. The court found Baldwin adequately alleged that Cieszkowski's statements "were deliberately and falsely made to the police and medical professionals with the intention of injuring the defendant’s reputation while simultaneously enhancing the chances of success of his own claims."

To meet the standard for slander per se in New York, Baldwin also needed to show that the statements charge him with a "serious crime." While that generally applies to things on the scale of murder, rape and larceny, Cohen notes courts in the state have found felonies and serious misdemeanors, especially those involving claims of physical injury, give rise to defamation claims.

Read the full decision here.

In other legal news:

— Amazon is being accused of paying non-white employees less and "de-leveling" them into lower positions than they are qualified for in a discrimination lawsuit filed by the Head of Underrepresented Founder Startup Business Development for Amazon Web Services. Charlotte Newman, a black Harvard Business School grad and former economic policy adviser to Sen. Cory Booker, also says she has been racially and sexually harassed during her four years at the company. While the company and its leaders make public statements in support of racial equity, Newman says it does the opposite behind closed doors. Writes attorney Douglas Wigdor in the complaint, "When a company’s top leaders traffic in stereotypes of Black employees and fail to condemn intimidation tactics, managers farther down the chain will take note of that modus operandi and behave accordingly."

Amazon says it's common for people from all backgrounds who come into the company to take a less senior title than they previously had, and it has a zero tolerance policy for workplace discrimination.

An Amazon spokesperson on Friday sent The Hollywood Reporter this statement in response to the complaint: “Amazon works hard to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture, and these allegations do not reflect those efforts or our values. We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind and thoroughly investigate all claims and take appropriate action. We are currently investigating the new allegations included in this lawsuit.”

— The trial in Johnny Depp's defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard has been delayed until next year. Depp in March 2019 sued Heard, claiming that an op-ed she wrote for the Washington Post defamed him by implying that he's a domestic abuser. The trial has been rescheduled multiple times amid the COVID-19 pandemic and is now currently set to begin April 11, 2022.

Disputes that have settled:

— Byron Allen's Entertainment Studios Networks and Charter Communications on Feb. 3 issued a joint statement announcing they've settled a racial discrimination suit the executive filed in 2016. Allen last summer settled a similar dispute with Comcast after their battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ended in the cable giant's favor, and prior to that he reached a deal with AT&T in a dispute with DirecTV.

— Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in the fall settled their dispute with a paparazzi agency that took drone photos of their son at their private residence. The photo agency, X17, issued an apology and agreed to an injunction that makes it turn over the images and bars it from employing the same tactics again.

— The 2019 Golden Globes "Fiji Water Girl" Kelly Steinbach and Fiji parent The Wonderful Company  have settled their fight over the use of her likeness after her red carpet photobombs went viral.

— It appears George R.R. Martin has quietly settled his dispute with Blackstone Manor over the film rights to his 1988 werewolf novella The Skin Trade.

New hires and promotions:

— Jenner & Block has made partner Alison Stein a co-chair of its Content, Media, and Entertainment Practice, which she'll lead with Andy Bart and David Singer. Stein’s practice focuses on intellectual property, and her recent clients have included Nintendo of America, ViacomCBS and Facebook. The Penn Law grad also has an active pro bono practice, through which she's counseled the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, represented sex-trafficking victims and worked on matters for the Times-UP legal defense fund.

— MRC has hired Kenneth Christmas as its general counsel, a newly-established role through which he will oversee all corporate legal affairs. The Yale Law grad joins from Del Shaw Moonves Tanaka Finkelstein & Lezcano, and previously served in roles at MarVista Entertainment, Lionsgate Television, Hansen Jacobson and O’Melveny & Meyers. (MRC is a co-owner of The Hollywood Reporter through a joint venture with Penske Media titled P-MRC.)

— Mayer Brown has hired veteran litigator Paul Fakler as a partner in its intellectual property practice. Fakler's practice centers on the intersection of music and technology, and his clients have included Sirius XM Radio, Music Choice and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The Georgetown University Law Center grad joins from Orrick.

— Entertainment boutique Granderson Des Rochers has promoted Elizabeth Moody to senior partner and Jamie Slade to partner. Moody, an American University Washington College of Law grad, chairs the firm's new media practice. Meanwhile, Slade leads its Latinx and branding practices, and also teaches at her alma mater Loyola Law School.