In libel action concerning Netflix’s 2019 film The Laundromat, district court grants anti-SLAPP motion, finding that film does not contain false depictions of plaintiff law firm Mossack Fonseca or fallout from “Panama Papers” leak.
Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca became the center of an international scandal in 2016 when millions of its client documents were leaked to a German journalist and subsequently released worldwide. The documents shed light on the firm’s international offshore tax practice on behalf of prominent politicians, wealthy individuals and various organizations. Three years after the leak of the so-called Panama Papers, Netflix released The Laundromat, a Steven Soderbergh film that dramatized the events surrounding the leak. Several weeks after the film was released, Mossack Fonseca and its co-founders, Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, sued Netflix, asserting state law claims for libel, libel per se and false light invasion of privacy as well as federal claims for trademark dilution and false advertising.
Netflix moved to strike the state law claims pursuant to California’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute, which requires defendants to establish that the challenged claims arise from activity in furtherance of their free speech rights in connection with a public issue and, if defendants are successful, shifts the burden to plaintiffs to demonstrate a probability of success on their claims.
Netflix argued that its speech was protected by the anti-SLAPP statute, as it was “made in a place open to the public or a public forum in connection with an issue of public interest” or was otherwise in furtherance of their free speech rights “in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest.” The district court agreed that the film constituted a public forum because it was released theatrically and subsequently made available for streaming to millions of Netflix subscribers worldwide. The court also agreed that the film concerned public issues or issues of public interest because it concerned “well-known worldwide leaders” in the offshore industry and told the story of the Panama Papers leak, which revealed how Mossack Fonseca “funneled money for the wealthy in Panama and worldwide.”
According to the court, plaintiffs could not demonstrate a probability of success on their claims for libel, libel per se and false light. To succeed on all three claims, plaintiffs would need to prove that the film included “assertions of fact that are false or create false impressions about Plaintiffs.” Plaintiffs contended that the film portrayed Mossack and Fonseca as “flamboyant lawyers” involved in a variety of criminal acts undertaken by their clients, tarnishing their personal and professional reputations. But no reasonable viewer, the court held, could interpret the film as conveying assertions of objective fact, particularly given the statement at the beginning of the film that it was “based on actual secrets,” which the court noted “sets the stage,” and the subsequent disclaimer at the film’s conclusion stating that it was fictionalized for dramatization and not intended to reflect any actual person or history.
The court also held that even if a reasonable viewer could interpret the film as conveying assertions of fact, the film’s portrayal of plaintiffs and the events surrounding the Panama Papers leak was not false. As the court held, the film does not portray plaintiffs as having been involved in the criminal activities carried out by the firm’s clients, and the film’s depiction of the founders’ arrest and pending prosecution was not false, as criminal charges had actually been brought against them and they had indeed been arrested and jailed for three months. Accordingly, the court dismissed plaintiffs’ claims for libel, libel per se and false light invasion of privacy.
Summary prepared by Frank D’Angelo and Marwa Abdelaziz