Showtime Beats 'Billions' Defamation Suit From Cayuga Nation

Billions - Paul Giamatti -Publicity still - H 2020
Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME

Showtime has defeated a lawsuit over a May 2019 episode of Billions as a New York judge has found the Cayuga Nation can't sue the network for defamation because the allegedly offensive material involved the tribe as a governing body rather than its individual members. 

The Cayuga Nation and Clint Halftown on Aug. 15 sued the network, along with co-creators Brian Koppelman and Andrew Ross Sorkin and writer-producer David Levien, alleging the series portrayed them as participating in an illegal casino land deal and bribing a public official. 

Cayuga is acknowledged by the U.S. as a sovereign nation and Halftown is a member of its national council and its federal representative. The tribe operates two gaming entertainment facilities on its lands, but they're limited to games like bingo. They argue the series portrayed them in an offensive and defamatory way and its implication that the tribe has casinos and engages in shady land deals with "outsiders" could hurt its application with the federal government to have its land placed into a trust.

In the episode at issue, which aired May 5, 2019, fictional former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) asks his father to "juice [him] in with the tribe," which is identified as the Cayuga Iroquois. Rhoades is launching a mobile voting platform for New York elections and his father's response, the complaint alleges, implies that the Cayuga Nation was under his influence and involved in "a casino land deal and an illegal revenue-sharing agreement." The episode also features a council member named Jane Halftown who attempts to persuade an election commissioner to sign off on the app by threatening a sit-in by 30 members of the Cayuga Nation in headdresses before Rhoades offers her a trip to Aruba.

Showtime moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that as a sovereign nation Cayuga can't bring a defamation claim and the episode wasn't about Halftown. The court agreed.

"[T]he defamation claim by the Cayuga Nation must be dismissed since the allegedly defamatory material was 'directed against a governing body and how it governed, rather than against its individual members' and the episode did not portray 'the Tribal Council members [as] individually corrupt or individually promoting a criminal enterprise,'" writes judge Kathryn E. Freed in her decision, which is posted below.

Further, Freed found there's no showing that Jane's fictional character is "of and concerning" Halftown and a shared surname isn't enough to make that connection.

"Here, the most obvious difference between the fictional character of Jane and Mr. Halftown is that the former is a female and the latter a male," writes Freed. "Additionally, there is no indication in plaintiffs' motion papers that Mr. Halftown was ever involved in any land deals or discussions with a voting commissioner regarding the implementation of a MVP or any other electoral issue."

Plus, there's a disclaimer in the credits that says the events and characters are fictitious and any similarity to actual people or events is "purely coincidental."

The tribe and Halftown had also argued that the series misappropriated their likenesses, but Freed isn't buying that argument either. 

"Since the Cayuga Nation is clearly not a living person, the claim against it pursuant to section 51 must be dismissed," writes Freed. "Additionally, since 'works of fiction and satire do not fall within the narrow scope of the statutory phrases "advertising" and "trade"', the claim by both plaintiffs pursuant to section 51 must be dismissed."

Showtime in October defeated another lawsuit over the hit series. Denise Shull in January 2019 sued the network, claiming Maggie Siff's character Wendy Rhoades is based on her book Market Mind Games and that Sorkin asked her to help develop the character and she was never compensated. She's filed a motion asking the court to reconsider its decision.