Alston & Bird clients NFGTV, Inc. (Eastern TV), and Monami Entertainment LLC, production companies for VH1’s hit reality TV show, “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta,” have been granted summary judgment in a two-and-a-half-year defamation battle.
In a lawsuit filed in 2012 in Fulton County Superior Court in Georgia, plaintiff Mickey Wright, Jr. – a former record executive and music personality known as MeMpHiTz – alleged that he was defamed in several episodes of the show’s first season in comments made about him by Kimberly Michelle Pate, the award-winning singer/songwriter known as K. Michelle. The lawsuit asked for $15 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages.
“[T]he actual, complete truth is more damning than Pate’s made-for-reality-TV phraseology,” noted Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney in his ruling dismissing the defamation claims.
The First Amendment also protects the opinion-based portions of the statements, the court explained, because “reasonable ['Love and Hip Hop Atlanta'] audience members would have understood Defendant Pate to have been using figurative and exaggerative language to express her strong, emotional, and negative views of Plaintiff and his impact on her career—as opposed to making a literal assertion of fact.”
Judge McBurney added that even if he could prove falsity, Wright – a public figure – would be unable to meet his heightened burden to show that the defendants published the statements with actual malice.
The production companies “exercised due diligence concerning Pate’s domestic violence claims,” said Judge McBurney, and had gone above and beyond by informing the viewing audience that there were competing versions of the event.
Also noted in the opinion is the court’s consideration of a motion filed by the defendants to recover attorneys’ fees under the Official Code of Georgia Annotated (O.C.G.A.) 9-15-14, which provides for an award of “reasonable and necessary” attorney fees and litigation expenses against a party or an attorney for asserting frivolous or baseless claims or engaging in improper litigation conduct. That motion remains pending.
“We are satisfied that justice has prevailed,” said Alston & Bird partner Christy Hull Eikhoff, who served as counsel to NFGT and Monami Entertainment. “The court’s opinion is exceptionally thorough and well-reasoned. The judge ably applied multiple aspects of Georgia’s defamation and media law to get the right result.”
Defendants Viacom Inc., parent company of VH1, and K. Michelle were also awarded summary judgment.
In addition to Eikhoff, Alston & Bird associate Jonathan Parente served as counsel to NFGTV and Monami Entertainment.