Former Miss California Carrie Prejean, 22, has sued Miss California USA for libel, public disclosure of private facts, religious discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress stemming from the controversy over her position on gay marriage. She was stripped of her title earlier this year, but the officials insist it was due to her breaking her contract and failing to perform her duties as Miss California, including the missing of appearances. The complaint also named Miss California USA officials Keith Lewis and Shanna Moakler and publicist Roger Neal.
Her attorney Charles LiMandri insists that they will be able to show that Prejean was fired for her support of traditional marriage. Miss California USA officials Keith Lewis and Shanna Moakler, as well as publicist Roger Neal.
It alleges that Prejean suffered because of “libel, public disclosure of private facts, religious discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.” Prejean had previously threatened to sue Lewis over statements about Prejean. Lewis told Larry King in one interview that Prejean for fired for a variety of different problems and added “She came to us and said I’m not interested in your input; I’ll make my own decision what I’m going to do,” Lewis told CNN’s Larry King in June. “You know, when you have a contract, when you’re working for someone, you have a responsibility to follow through on what that requirement is. . . . she was not interesting in upholding the title or the responsibilities.” LiMandri responded with a letter warning Lewis about a defamation lawsuit.
He denied missing appearances and called the allegations a “complete and utter pretext” for her firing. He insisted that Lewis asked Prejean “to attend a gay documentary in Hollywood promoting same-sex marriage.” He noted “[i]t was not my client’s job, as Miss California, simply to help your client promote his personal or business interests as a Hollywood agent and producer, or gay activist.”
The best defense is to focus on the alleged contractual breach as opposed to Prejean’s views. However, Moakler’s attorney, Mel Avanzando, issued a statement blaming Prejean for the injury to her own reputation: “More importantly, as everyone who watched or read her public statements is well aware, Ms. Prejean’s unfortunate and bigoted statements are responsible for any public humiliation or damages to her reputation that she has claimed to have suffered.”
On its face, this complaint will have a difficult time with some of the claims. As a public figure, any comments about Prejean to be actionable would require her to satisfy the New York Times v. Sullivan standard of actual malice — showing a knowing falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. Certainly, if she did not miss any appearances other than the gay marriage event, there would be a claim since the impression was that she had failed to appear. The gay marriage event was not an appropriate demand if it were made a mandatory appearance given her personal religious views. However, saying that she was not serious about being a beauty queen seems like opinion and would not make for a particularly good basis for libel. Indeed, even missing appearances (if false) would not necessarily be that damaging to her reputation.
The disclosure of private facts is an interesting claim. This privacy tort has an exception for “newsworthy” stories — even if they include private facts. Prejean eagerly embraced celebrity status and publicly proclaimed her personal views on gay marriage, which makes this story newsworthy.
The discrimination based on religious views would require proof that she was actually fired for those views as opposed to a failure to fulfill her contractual requirements.
The real question is whether she has enough to make it to discovery and past an inevitable motion to dismiss. Once in discovery, she will be able to view internal memoranda and emails that might reinforce her claims of an effort to force her out due to her religious views.
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