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November 2018: Pro Bono Victory in Defamation Case Sets Important Free Speech Precedent

November 2018

The firm secured an important pro bono victory for free speech. Our client—a young woman who came to the United States from Nigeria as a student—wrote a blog describing sexual abuse she suffered in Nigeria as a teenager. In it, she named a powerful Nigerian Prince and members of his inner circle as her abusers. Shortly thereafter, the prince began a bid for political office. Concerned that our client’s allegations would sway public opinion against him, he and his brother filed a defamation lawsuit against her in D.C. Superior Court, seeking to force her to recant.

The firm agreed to take the case on pro bono and filed a special motion to dismiss under D.C.’s relatively new Anti-SLAPP law—a law which affords special protection to defendants sued for speaking publicly on topics of moment. The firm argued that the law applied because sexual abuse committed and facilitated by powerful men is a matter of public interest; that the allegations of sexual abuse cited in the complaint fell outside the statute of limitations; and that the one cited publication made within the statute of limitations (which included no allegations of abuse regarding either plaintiff) could not, as a matter of law, be construed to incorporate the time-barred allegations by reference.

After a lengthy oral argument, the court largely agreed. The court held, as a matter of first impression, that D.C.’s Anti-SLAPP law protects speech concerning sexual abuse committed and facilitated by powerful men. The court further dismissed all but one of the prince’s claims, held his one remaining claim would be subject to the stringent “actual malice” standard for defamation, and dismissed the prince’s brother from the case entirely. Finally, the court invited briefing on an award of attorney’s fees.

The prince sought to amend his complaint and the firm opposed, warning that a second Anti-SLAPP motion would be forthcoming should the court permit amendment. The court ultimately permitted the prince to file an amended complaint, but invited a second Anti-SLAPP motion. Shortly thereafter, the court award our client more than $34,000 in fees related to the first motion, including a 10% upward adjustment of prevailing D.C. billing rates due in part to the firm’s “high degree of skill in both drafting and arguing the motion.” Facing the threat of a second Anti- SLAPP motion and its attendant fee award, the prince stipulated to the dismissal of what remained of the case, thus handing our client an early and decisive victory.