There is an interesting defamation lawsuit announced this week by the Miss Universe Organization. The organization which runs the Miss Universe and Miss USA contests (and is co-owned by Donald Trump) is suing Sheena Monnin, who resigned recently as Miss Pennsylvania. Monnin, 27, charged that the competition is rigged and that a fellow contestant saw a list of the top five selectees in the Miss USA pageant before they were actually selected on the program.
Trump responded in his signature over-the-top and vicious way. He attacked her as obviously not competitive and asked people just to look at her to confirm why she lost. He also claims that she was really upset because of the inclusion of transgender contestants this year.
However, Monnin is sticking by her allegations. She has reportedly been joined by a second contestant in the allegation. The second contestant says that Miss Florida Karina Brez knew the pageant’s top five finalists before the top 15 were even announced. She told reporters that she was very upset because she was not on the list.
Monnin has specifically called out Miss Colorado USA Marybel Gonzalez and Miss South Carolina USA Erika Powell as undeserving finalists. That could raise additional legal questions. Calling them undeserving is mere opinion and protected speech. However, to the extent that Monnin is suggesting that they are part of a fraud, it could be defamatory.
The lawsuit could raise some intriguing discovery and arguments. The allegation of fraud is generally treated as a per se category for defamation. There can also be defamation claims by individual contestant officials as defamation per quod — defamation that requires extrinsic evidence to prove its injurious nature. While not named, officials can claim that they are defamed by the allegation and that anyone who knows they are judges or officials this year would make the connection.
I understand why the pageant would see the need to sue. This type of allegation destroys the credibility of the competition to whatever degree it is credible. However, discovery could be problematic since counsel would be allowed to delve into how much judges discuss contestants and rank contestants before the show. As for Monnin, truth is a defense. If she could prove that she was told about this list, she could claim that she was merely disclosing a controversy among the contestants. This can be a grey line in defamation where repeating an allegation can become defamatory. It depends on how it is framed. If someone says that she was told that there was a list by another contestant, that is truth and would not seem actionable unless she knew the allegation to be false. Yet, if she is alleging fraud as a fact, it can be actionable. By the way, the second contestant quoted but not named could find herself outed in litigation and even added as a defendant. Trump and Company could seek to force the reporters to reveal the name of the contestant. Even without the parade of Miss USA contestants, this should make for some interesting depositions.