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Cieszkowski v. Baldwin

New York trial court declines to dismiss majority of slander per se claim brought by actor Alec Baldwin against man with whom Baldwin had altercation over Manhattan parking spot, dismissing only Baldwin’s claim related to privileged statements made under oath and holding that statements alleging that Baldwin “committed physical violence” were actionable as slander per se even without proof of special damages, as they charged Baldwin with “serious crime.”

Actor Alec Baldwin and Wojciech Cieszkowski were involved in a physical and verbal altercation over a parking spot in Manhattan. Baldwin asserts that his wife and child were standing in the spot to save it for him when Cieszkowski aggressively tried to park his vehicle. While Baldwin contends that he merely pushed Cieszkowski lightly on the chest, Cieszkowski maintains that Baldwin “shoved him hard” and punched him in the jaw. The incident ended with Baldwin’s arrest, and he was charged with third-degree attempted assault and second-degree harassment. Baldwin pleaded guilty to the harassment charge, and the assault charge was subsequently dropped.

Following the widely publicized incident, Baldwin appeared on talk shows and described Cieszkowski’s behavior as “aggressive” and “dangerous.” Cieszkowski brought a civil suit for assault, battery and slander per se against Baldwin. The court dismissed Cieszkowski’s slander per se claim in December 2019, finding Baldwin’s talk show statements to be protected opinion and hyperbole (read our previous summary of the opinion here). In November 2019, Baldwin sued Cieszkowski for slander per se and false imprisonment, and after the cases were consolidated, Cieszkowski moved to dismiss.

Baldwin’s slander per se claim was based on four groups of statements, all stemming from Cieszkowski’s contention that Baldwin had assaulted and injured him. These four groups of statements were made to the police, to the medical staff at the hospital, to the New York Post and New York Daily News, and as part of a judicial proceeding under oath. 

Denying the motion to dismiss the slander per se claim in large part, the court reasoned that although the statements Cieszkowski made to newspapers that he was still “sore” and “recovering” from his injuries did not specifically mention Baldwin by name, a reasonable person reading the statements would understand them to refer to Baldwin in light of the media’s wide reporting on the incident. Therefore, the court held, Baldwin adequately pleaded the “of and concerning” element of his claim as to those statements.

Although the statements Cieszkowski made to the police and medical professionals who examined him after the incident were protected by a qualified privilege that can be overcome only by showing that the statements were made with “malice” or “reckless disregard of whether they were false or not,” the court held that Baldwin’s allegations that Cieszkowski’s statements were intended to injure Baldwin’s reputation were sufficient to plead the claim. The court dismissed Baldwin’s slander per se claim, however, insofar as it was based on comments and writings made under oath to the District Attorney’s Office, as such statements are afforded an absolute privilege from liability as statements made in a judicial proceeding that are “pertinent to the issue[s] in the proceeding.” All the statements made to the newspapers, medical professionals and police also were presented as a factual analysis of the altercation—not as Cieszkowski’s opinion—and thus were “susceptible to a defamatory connotation.”

Finally, the court held that Cieszkowski’s statements that Baldwin “committed physical violence” charged him with “a serious crime” and were thus actionable as slander per se even without proof of special damages. Accordingly, the court held that Baldwin adequately pleaded a claim for slander per se as to all of Cieszkowski’s statements except those made under oath as part of a judicial proceeding. 

The court dismissed Baldwin’s false imprisonment claim alleging that Cieszkowski falsely reported to the police that he had been “violently assaulted,” leading to Baldwin’s arrest. Because Cieszkowski is a civilian rather than a police officer, Baldwin was required to plead that Cieszkowski “affirmatively induced the officer to act, such as by taking an active part in the arrest . . . to the point where the officer [was] not acting of his own volition.” The court held that Baldwin failed to meet this standard because Cieszkowski did not force the officer’s hand in making the arrest nor physically confine Baldwin at the scene of the incident.

Summary prepared by Sarah Schacter and Marwa Abdelaziz