Paramount's 'Wolf of Wall Street' Libel Win Affirmed by Appeals Court

The 2nd Circuit tackles a "libel in fiction" claim, holding no actual malice because, among other things, the producers used fake names and included a disclaimer.
Paramount Pictures/Photofest

A federal appeals court agrees that producers of Wolf of Wall Street didn't recklessly make false statements about Andrew Greene, a former executive at the disgraced real-life brokerage firm at the center of the 2013 Martin Scorsese film, Stratton Oakmont. As a result, Greene won't be able to revive his libel suit.

Greene filed his suit all the way back in 2014. Targeting Paramount Pictures, Scorsese's Sikelia Productions and Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way Productions, Greene was unhappy with the character of Nicky "Rugrat" Koskoff, played by actor P.J. Byrne. That's the character who wore a toupee throughout the movie and caused the character of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) to remark, "Fucking Rugrat, that wig-wearing faggot. I can't believe that fucking guy. I want to kill him," and Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) to then respond, "Swear to God, I want to choke him to death. Irresponsible little prick."

The suit raised a "libel in fiction" claim, where a plaintiff can prevail only if he shows that a reasonable person understood whatever was fictionalized to be thinly veiled false statements about him. Here, Greene asserted that viewers would view him as a criminal who used drugs and partied with prostitutes.

"While this Court has not spoken definitively on defamation in the context of fictitious characters, our First Amendment jurisprudence requires a plaintiff to show both that the character is similar enough to him to be 'of and concerning' him, and that the portrayal is false and defamatory," writes a unanimous three-judge panel at the 2nd Circuit.

The appeals court agrees that the makers of Wolf of Wall Street "took appropriate steps to ensure that no one would be defamed by the Film," including how screenwriter Terence Winter created composite characters and assigned fictitious names.

The decision also states that no reasonable viewer would believe that defendants intended the Koskoff character to be a depiction of Greene.

"The most obvious point is that there is no character named Andrew Greene or Wigwam in the Film," continues the opinion. "Moreover, the record shows that defendants knew that the Koskoff character was a fictitious character who was a composite of three different people depicted in the Book. For example, in the Film the Koskoff character worked as a broker at Stratton who works on the trading floor. Greene, on the other hand, was the head of the Corporate Finance Department who did not work on the trading floor."

Finally, the 2nd Circuit notes a disclaimer during the end credits of the film that stated, "While this story is based on actual events, certain characters, characterizations, incidents, locations and dialogue were fictionalized or invented for purposes of dramatization. With respect to such fictionalization or invention, any similarity to the name or to the actual character or history of any person, living or dead, or any product or entity or actual incident, is entirely for dramatic purpose and not intended to reflect on an actual character, history, product or entity."

That adds up to no actual malice.

Here's the full decision.