Getting back to the defamation lawsuit Scottie Pippen filed last month in an Illinois federal court. By the way, I know it’s still early, but so far I haven’t received word that Pippen is suing me over my last post…

Before we get into Pippen’s specific claims, let’s briefly review the law of defamation. First of all, defamation is the broader classification of two kinds of intentional torts (a type of civil lawsuit) that arise out of the making of false and disparaging remarks about another. If the disparaging remark or statement is oral, then the claim is for slander, if written, then it’s libel. Anytime someone sues for defamation they must prove four elements to win. Although there are a few narrow exceptions, the most difficult of these elements to prove is, invariably, damages—i.e. what financial harm did the person suffer as a result of the disparaging statement?

Additionally, when the person claiming defamation is a “public figure” (e.g. celebrity, public official, etc.), they must also prove that the individual who made the defamatory statement/publication knew that the it was false (or recklessness as to the statement’s alleged falsity). This is sometimes called the actual malice doctrine, and it basically means that there isn’t liability for negligently or accidentally making a statement that is false about a celebrity.

Scottie Pippen has alleged that the various media outlets defamed him by publishing ten or so articles that either allege or imply that he filed for bankruptcy in or around 2003 (complaint PDF file). Furthermore, Pippen’s attorneys claim that these publications constitute defamation per se, which is one of the narrow exceptions I alluded to earlier with regard to proving damages. When a statement is considered defamation per se, then you don’t have to prove your damages. But there’s a catch. Historically, there are only four types of defamatory statements that are considered defamation per se:

(1) allegations that attack a person’s professional competence

(2) accusations of criminal activity (which must usually allude to crimes of moral turpitude)

(3) allegations of unchastity

(4) allegations of a loathsome disease (e.g. leprosy, HIV/AIDS, other STDs)

What’s missing from this list? For starters, I didn’t see “being poor,” which is the only thing that would apply in Scottie Pippen’s case. So unless Pippen’s attorneys can convince the court that they should add “being poor” to the short list of per se defamatory statements, his claim for defamation per se is dead in the water. 

Pippen has also sued CBS, NBC, and the others for negligence, and for false light. Based on the actual malice doctrine the negligence claim is unfounded. As to false light, this is probably the only claim that Pippen has made that has a chance to withstand a motion to dismiss. So what is false light?

False light is somewhat similar to defamation, but is actually an invasion of privacy. The primary difference between a defamatory statement and one that gives rise to a claim for false light is that the crux of the former is a false statement, whereas the latter doesn’t necessarily have to be false—typically a false-light statement is one that is misleading in a way that would be highly offensive or embarrassing to a person of ordinary sensibilities.

Based on all this, I would expect the attorneys for each defendant to file motions to dismiss counts one and three of Pippen’s complaint, and I would also expect them to prevail on these motions. Pippen’s attorneys could amend count three of the complaint to include ordinary defamation (as opposed to defamation per se), but even if they do, they will then have to prove that Scottie suffered some financial harm as a result of the alleged defamatory statements. Damage to his reputation and so-called good name aren’t enough.

One last observation about this case: Assuming that Pippen never filed for bankruptcy, how did so many news outlets get it wrong? It’s possible that one just copied the other after the other, which may make sense for some of the smaller defendants, but it surprises me that editors at CBS Sports and CNBC would have been so careless.