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Batra v. Wolf, et al.

Plaintiff Ravi Batra, a bald, Indian-American lawyer involved in a judicial corruption scandal, filed a libel-in-fiction claim against the writers, producers and broadcasters of the television show Law & Order, claiming that an episode about a judicial bribery scandal that included a character who was a bald, Indian-American lawyer named Ravi Patel was defamatory. The court reached this holding after noting that no libel-in-fiction law suit in New York state court had survived a motion to dismiss in almost 25 years, and then denied defendants’ motion to dismiss.

The court noted that the series Law & Order famously evokes the phrase “ripped from the headlines.” In this case, the plaintiff, Batra, was the subject of media attention for several months surrounding the uncovering of a judicial bribery scandal in Brooklyn. He was alleged to have socialized with judges and was investigated in connection with claims of corruption in the judicial selection process but never charged with a crime. The subject character in the Law & Order episode at issue, Patel, was depicted socializing with and giving bribes to a Brooklyn judge.

The court discussed the counter-intuitive nature of libel-in-fiction claims and applicable standards, stating that any plaintiff suing for libel must show that the alleged defamation is "of and concerning" the plaintiff and that it is false. In the fiction context, the plaintiff also must show that the viewer was "totally convinced that the episode in all aspects as far as the plaintiff is concerned is not fiction at all." In the court’s own words, “[i]n order to overcome the ironies inherent in a libel-in-fiction claim, the identity of the real and fictional personae must be so complete that the defamatory material becomes a plausible aspect of the real life of the plaintiff or suggestive of the plaintiff in significant ways. Identification alone is insufficient.”

The court held that determination as to whether the publication is "of and concerning" the plaintiff is to be made by the court. In making that determination, the court should search for similarities and dissimilarities between the plaintiff and the fictional character to ascertain whether a person who knew the plaintiff could reasonably conclude that the plaintiff was the fictional character.

In this case, the plaintiff argued that because of the uniqueness of his name, ethnicity, and appearance, any person who knew him, or had heard of him, would identify him with the character Patel. Moreover, because of the widespread media coverage of the Brooklyn judicial scandal, with which the accusations against him were inextricably intertwined, it would be reasonable for a viewer to associate Batra with Patel.

The court agreed, noting that, unlike the plaintiffs in other libel-in-fiction cases, the plaintiff is a public figure. “A plaintiff who is considered a public figure must make the same showing, at the pleading stage, as any other plaintiff: that the statements were of and concerning him and likely to be understood as defamatory by the ordinary person. However, analysis of both elements is colored by his familiarity to a public not personally acquainted with him.”

The plaintiff also showed that at the time the Law & Order episode aired, he was one of only six attorneys practicing law in New York City with the first name "Ravi," and that he was the only one who was the same age and physically resembled Patel. He submitted affidavits from acquaintances who saw the episode and believed that Patel was modeled on Batra because: (1) they were acquainted, at the time, with only one Indian attorney with the first name "Ravi"; (2) they recognized the episode as referring to the Brooklyn judicial bribery scandal; (3) they were aware of the media coverage linking Batra to the scandal; and (3) the actor portraying Patel was a "look alike" to Batra.

The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that no reasonable viewer could believe that the episode stated actual facts about Batra or that the episode depicted actual events with respect to the scandal. Although the allegations against plaintiff Batra were for graft and Patel was depicted as engaging in bribery,“[i]n the context in which [the episode] was presented, extensive media coverage linking Batra to the [judicial] scandal, there is a reasonable likelihood that the ordinary viewer, unacquainted with Batra personally, could understand Patel's corruption to be the truth about Batra.”

While acknowledging that the First Amendment considerations are substantial, the court refused to dismiss the complaint because of its unique facts.