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The First Amendment Protects You, and #MeToo

March 8, 2021

LBKM wins summary judgment for pro bono client sued for defamation after sharing letter detailing sexual harassment.

On February 27th, LBKM counsel A. Mackenna White secured a summary judgment win for the firm’s client, Maria Grand, a young musician whose efforts to effect change in the music industry led instead to a years-long libel suit in the Eastern District of New York. The firm’s victory sets key precedent protecting a victim’s right to tell their story—a right protected by the First Amendment and imperative to generating social awareness, discussion, and change. The decision is one of the first to analyze and apply New York’s recently amended anti-SLAPP statute. Few cases stemming from the #MeToo movement proceed to the summary judgment stage.

Ms. Grand was a teenage aspiring jazz saxophonist in 2009 when she met Steve Coleman, then 52, a MacArthur grant award-winning saxophonist whom she had admired since she was young. His offer to mentor her began a tumultuous six-year professional and personal relationship. In 2017, Ms. Grand sent a letter to members of an advocacy group dedicated to fighting discrimination and harassment in the jazz industry. She wrote that she believed Mr. Coleman had abused his position as her mentor to groom and manipulate her into a sexual relationship under the guise of advancing her musical career. Mr. Coleman alleged in his lawsuit that the relationship was entirely consensual and that her statements were false. He alleged that her statements destroyed his career and sought millions in damages. Ms. Grand was referred to Ms. White through her partnership with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. Mark Bailen, Katherine McKnight, Cara McGourty, and Richard Raile of Baker Hostetler served as co-counsel on the case.

Preceding the summary judgment win, Ms. White won several critical motions, including a motion for a protective order barring Mr. Coleman from seeking details of Ms. Grand’s sexual history in discovery. The Court further ordered that her deposition be held in a federal courtroom overseen by a retired judge to ensure that Ms. Grand would not be intimated or harassed by Mr. Coleman.

In October 2019, on behalf of Ms. Grand, LBKM and Baker Hostetler filed a motion for summary judgment defending her letter as a protected expression of opinion incapable of being proven true or false to attach defamatory meaning and liability. Judge Eric Vitaliano agreed. He further held that Mr. Coleman failed to establish “actual malice,” a requirement under the New York anti-SLAPP statute for communications in connection with an issue of public interest. The Court distinguished between Ms. Grand’s assertions of factual events, which Mr. Coleman did not dispute, and her opinion that those events constituted manipulation and harassment. Although Mr. Coleman had an obviously different characterization of the relationship, the parties’ disagreement was a matter of opinion about disclosed facts and, hence, could not be defamatory and was not material. The Court rejected Mr. Coleman’s argument that statements by Ms. Grand expressing anger toward him were evidence of actual malice. The Court distinguished personal motive from the legally cognizable question of knowledge or reckless disregard for truth. The case also addressed the legal doctrine of republication because Mr. Coleman had himself shared details from Ms. Grand’s letter, including on his public social media accounts. He also widely publicized his case against Ms. Grand. The Court noted that Mr. Coleman incurred no damages until after he filed his defamation lawsuit.

LBKM is honored to be a part of the fight against sexism and sexual misconduct (and the upholding of the First Amendment) and to have represented Ms. Grand in this matter. The firm is appreciative of the support of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and invaluable expert witnesses who assisted in this win.[1]

The case is Coleman v. Grand, Case No. 1:18-cv-05663 (E.D.N.Y.) (ENV) (RLM).

[1] LBKM offers its sincere gratitude to Steve Holzen of Stout, who served as a financial damages expert, and clinical psychologist Dr. Charlene Muehlenhard of the University of Kansas and Brandie Pugh, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware, who served as expert witnesses on the issue of consent in sexual relationships.

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