Paramount Defeats 'Wolf of Wall Street' Libel Suit From Stratton Oakmont Alum

The Martin Scorsese film was based on a true story, but used composite characters. A judge rules former Stratton Oakmont general counsel Andrew Greene can't establish actual malice.
A 'Wolf of Wall Street' billboard

It took a while, but Paramount Pictures, Martin Scorsese's Sikelia Productions and Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way Productions have finally prevailed in a defamation lawsuit over Wolf of Wall Street brought by former Stratton Oakmont general counsel Andrew Greene. A summary judgment on Thursday takes up the issue of issue of "libel in fiction" and what plaintiffs need to show in dealing with movies that are based on real events but also dramatized.

The case has been pending for more than four years, after Greene sued over the Scorsese-directed movie about the rise and somewhat fall of Jordan Belfort, convicted of securities fraud. Specifically, Greene identified the character of Nicky "Rugrat" Koskoff, played by actor P.J. Byrne, as being him — and took issue with scenes showing among other things, the character partying with prostitutes at a bachelor party with sterling silver trays containing illegal drugs.

The defendants almost escaped the lawsuit back in 2015, when the judge rejected a privacy claim but saw just enough in the defamation cause of action to allow it to move forward. That led to discovery, and later, plaintiffs showcasing what they learned about 1990s Stratton Oakmont and Greene responding that DiCaprio should really have done more character research.

As an initial matter in U.S. District Court Judge Joanna Sybert's summary judgment opinion (read here), she really doesn't think much of Greene's response, slams his attorneys for violating a procedural rule with too much commentary and thus disregards his response and deems the filmmakers' statement of material facts to be admitted.

The big issue in the case had to do with the interplay between two necessary elements of any defamation claim brought by a public figure: Actual malice is required, and any false statements need to be "of and concerning" the plaintiff, here, Greene.

Given that the pic is fictionalized and there is competing contentions about who "Rugrat" represents in real life, Sybert succinctly sums up that interplay.

"[I]f Koskoff is 'of and concerning' Plaintiff, then certain aspects of Koskoff are false as to Plaintiff, and Defendants acted with knowledge of that falsity," she writes. "If Koskoff is not 'of and concerning' Plaintiff, however, then any statement about that character is not false, and thus, not knowingly false."

Sybert ultimately concludes there was no knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of truth on the part of the defendants.

The judge holds, "Specifically, based on (1) the fictionalized nature of the Movie; (2) the undisputed facts that the Koskoff Character is a composite of three people and has a different name, nickname, employment history, personal history, and criminal history than Plaintiff; (3) the Movie’s disclaimer; (4) evidence of each Defendant’s subjective understanding that no real person was portrayed — or defamed — by the Koskoff Character; and (5) the lack of evidence to the contrary, Plaintiff cannot establish that Defendants in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of [the] publication.”