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Luhn v. Scott

District court dismisses defamation claim filed by former Fox News employee against network’s current CEO, finding that published statements denying knowledge of sexual harassment by Roger Ailes did not directly concern plaintiff nor imply she fabricated sexual abuse allegations.
Former Fox News employee Laura Luhn sued the cable news network and its current CEO, Suzanne Scott, for defamation, false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress, claiming that statements made by Scott and published in a Los Angeles Times article created the false and misleading implication that Luhn had fabricated allegations of sexual abuse by Ailes and allegations of a cover-up by Scott. 

Laura Luhn worked for Fox News from 1996 to 2011.  Throughout that period of employment, she was allegedly subjected to extensive and traumatic sexual harassment and abuse by Ailes, who at that time headed the network.  Luhn reported her allegations in 2011 and later entered into a settlement with Fox.  Subsequently, several other women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment by Ailes, leading to his departure from the network in 2016.  Scott later assumed the role of CEO, in May 2018. 

In April 2019, the Times published an article profiling Scott, titled “Fox News Chief Executive Suzanne Scott keeps her focus on winning.”  The article described the challenges Scott faced in taking over the network, including the numerous harassment lawsuits and reports of sexual abuse by Ailes.  Scott was quoted in the article as saying she “felt devastated for the women who work here” and “wanted to do everything [she] could to heal this place.”  Scott also stated that she had never experienced any sort of harassment by Ailes and denied having had any knowledge of his behavior toward other female employees, despite the fact that Scott was part of Ailes’ “inner circle” during his tenure at Fox.  

In her lawsuit against Scott and Fox, Luhn submitted affidavits from two Hollywood producers, each of whom attested to having read the Times article and having understood its references to harassed women to refer principally to Luhn.  The two producers further attested to having understood Scott’s statements concerning her lack of knowledge of Ailes’s harassment to impugn Luhn’s integrity and to defame her.  Defendants moved to dismiss Luhn’s claims, and the court granted the motion, holding that the quotes attributed to Scott did not directly concern Luhn or imply she had fabricated the sexual abuse allegations.

As to Luhn’s defamation claim, the court held that Scott’s statements to the Times were neither “of and concerning” Luhn nor defamatory in nature.  Defamatory statements, the court stated, should be interpreted objectively and from the perspective of a hypothetical, reasonable reader — not subjectively based upon actual readers.  For that reason, the court declined to consider the affidavits from the Hollywood producers as to their subjective understandings.  Analyzing the statements objectively, the court found that no reasonable reader could have interpreted Scott’s statements as specifically concerning Luhn, who was never mentioned or even referenced in the article.  Instead, the court reasoned that the statements pertained exclusively to Scott and her own mental state of unawareness.  Nor were the statements defamatory, according to the court, because instead of impugning Luhn’s credibility, they merely disclaimed any personal knowledge concerning Ailes’ behavior.  Some of Scott’s other comments in the article, such as that she felt devastated for the women who work here, actually reflected her apparent belief in the women’s allegations, the court added.

The court dismissed Luhn’s false light invasion of privacy claim on similar grounds.  That claim, the court noted, requires a showing of publicity that is understood to be of and concerning the plaintiff and places the plaintiff in a false light that would be offensive to a reasonable person.  Because the statements were not of and concerning Luhn and therefore could not have placed Luhn in an objectively offensive false light, the claim could not proceed.  

The court also dismissed Luhn’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, finding that Scott’s statements denying knowledge of Ailes’ misconduct plainly did not constitute the sort of “extreme and outrageous conduct” required to support such a claim. 

Summary prepared by Frank D’Angelo and Jordan Meddy