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Palin v. The New York Times Company

In Sarah Palin’s defamation suit against The New York Times, district court holds Palin cannot seek disgorgement of The Times’ advertising revenues, finding money damages are adequate remedy at law. 

Plaintiff Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and Sen. John McCain’s running mate during his 2008 presidential bid, brought a defamation claim against The New York Times and The Times’ editorial page editor, James Bennet, for publishing an editorial implying that Palin incited a January 2011 mass shooting during which six people were killed and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head.  

After Palin filed suit in June 2017, the district court dismissed the case in August 2017 on the grounds that Palin failed to adequately plead defendants acted with actual malice. The Second Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal, however, and remanded the case for further proceedings.  

Palin’s amended complaint alleged that defendants “knowingly and voluntarily exploited and retained a benefit conferred by Mrs. Palin” by publishing the editorial. According to Palin, because stories about her are likely to “spark readership interest,” defendants published the editorial seeking to “drive[] viewership and Web Clicks.” The online version of the editorial included several advertisements from which The Times generated revenue. Palin further alleged that the editorial increased traffic on The Times website, and consequently, The Times benefited from advertisements featured alongside the editorial. Under a disgorgement of profits theory, Palin sought “restitution in the form of The Times’ advertising revenues attributable to” the editorial, in addition to other money damages.  

On defendants’ renewed motion for partial judgment on the pleadings, the district court dismissed the disgorgement portion of Palin’s claim. The court explained that a plaintiff is entitled to equitable relief only if he or she lacks an adequate remedy at law. Citing the Eighth Circuit’s 2016 decision in Ventura v. Kyle, the district court found that disgorgement, an equitable remedy, was not available to Palin because money damages for defamation were an adequate remedy at law. The court reasoned that “Palin [was] attempting to obtain an additional remedy that [bore] no relation to the injury she suffered, because she [did] not claim that she would have been entitled to receive a portion of The Times’ advertising revenues if she had not been defamed.”

Summary prepared by Tal Dickstein and Lyndsi Allsop