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Eramo v. Rolling Stone, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division

September 22, 2016

NICOLE P. ERAMO, Plaintiff,
v.
ROLLING STONE, LLC, et al, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge

         Nicole Eramo filed this defamation action against defendants Rolling Stone, LLC ("Rolling Stone"), Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and Wenner Media LLC ("Wenner Media"). The case is presently before the court on plaintiffs motion for partial summary judgment and defendants' motion for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

         Factual Background

         A grant of summary judgment is appropriate only when "the entire record shows a right to judgment with such clarity as to leave no room for controversy and establishes affirmatively that the adverse party cannot prevail under any circumstances." Phoenix Savings and Loan, Inc. v. The Aetna Cas. and Surety Co.. 381 F.2d 245, 249 (4th Cir. 1967). When faced with cross-motions for summary judgment, the court considers each motion separately and resolves all factual disputes and "any competing, rational inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wightman v. Springfield Terminal Ry. Co.. 100 F.3d 228, 230 (1st Cir. 1996)). Accordingly, the following facts from the record are either undisputed or presented in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.

         Nicole P. Eramo ("Eramo") is an Associate Dean of Students at the University of Virginia ("UVA"). Rolling Stone and Wenner Media are the publishers of Rolling Stone magazine. Sabrina Rubin Erdely ("Erdely") worked as a reporter and Contributing Editor for Rolling Stone.

         On November 19, 2014, defendants published an article written by Erdely and entitled "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA" (the "Article"). Compl. ¶ 45. The Article contained a graphic depiction of the alleged gang-rape of a UVA student, referred to as "Jackie, " at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party. According to the Article, Jackie's mother informed an academic dean that Jackie had a "bad experience" at a party. Id. ¶ 56. The academic dean then put Jackie in touch with Eramo.

         At the time, Eramo's duties at UVA included performing intake of sexual assault complaints and providing support to purported victims. In this position, Eramo also participated in panel discussions and attended conferences on sexual assault. She also provided quotations for articles appearing in the Cavalier Daily, UVA's student-run newspaper, was interviewed on WUVA regarding UVA's sexual misconduct policy, and gave brief interviews to local news channels. PL's Resp. to Defs.' First Set of Interoggs. Nos. 1-3. On campus, Eramo was seen as "an expert in all issues related to sexual assault" and the "point person" for reports of sexual misconduct. 30(b)(6) Dep. of Alan Groves, 82:7-11, 333:16-18.

         In her pitch to Rolling Stone, Erdely stated that her article would "focus on a sexual assault case on one particularly fraught campus ... following it as it makes its way through university procedure to its resolution, or lack thereof." "Campus Rape" by Erdely, Dkt. 116, Ex. 7. The Article describes Jackie's interactions with Eramo, including how Jackie shared information about two other victims of the same fraternity. Throughout her investigation, Erdely spoke with a number of students about sexual assault at UVA; her notes reflect that several students communicated their admiration of Eramo. Erdely Reporting Notes, RS004381, RS004165, Dkt. 104, Ex. 15. As publication neared, some students expressed to Erdely concerns that her portrayal of Eramo was inaccurate. Dep. of Sara Surface 118:18-119:18.

         Erdely relied heavily on the narrative Jackie provided in writing the Article, so much so that she did not obtain the full names of Jackie's assailants or contact them. Nor did Erdely interview the individuals who found Jackie the night of her alleged gang-rape. Similarly, Erdely did not obtain certain corroborating documents Jackie claimed to have access to and was unable to confirm with Jackie's mother Jackie's assertion that her mother had likely destroyed the dress Jackie wore on the night of the alleged rape. Additionally, Erdely was not granted an interview with Eramo to ask about the university's policies. Instead, Eramo's superiors made UVA President, Teresa Sullivan, available.

         After its release, the Article created a "media firestorm" and was viewed online more than 2.7 million times. Rolling Stone issued a press release contemporaneously with the Article, and on November 26, 2014, Erdely appeared on the Brian Lehrer Show and the Slate DoubleX Gabfest podcast. On these shows, Erdely discussed the allegations made in the Article.

         The complaint asserts that the Article and subsequent media appearances destroyed Eramo's reputation as an advocate and supporter of victims of sexual assault. She was attacked by individuals on television and the internet, and she received hundreds of threatening, vicious emails from members of the public. As a result, Eramo suffered "significant embarrassment, humiliation, mental suffering and emotional distress." Compl. ¶ 207.

         Upon further investigation by independent entities, it was reported that the Article, and key components of Jackie's story, could not be substantiated. Within two weeks of the Article's publication, the fraternity where Jackie's alleged attack took place produced evidence demonstrating that no social gathering was held on the night in question and that no member of the fraternity matched the description given by Jackie for her primary attacker. Id. ¶ 90. Additionally, The Washington Post ran an article addressing the fact that Erdely did not contact Jackie's accused assailants.

         On December 5, 2014, Rolling Stone issued a statement (the "Editor's Note") that acknowledged the discrepancies in Jackie's account, blamed Jackie for misleading Erdely, and claimed that its trust in Jackie had been "misplaced." Id. ¶ 91. This statement appeared appended to the online Article, and also by itself on a separate URL. On March 23, 2015, four months after the Article was published, the Charlottesville Police Department issued a report regarding its investigation of Jackie's assault. The report stated that Jackie had told Eramo a wholly different tale of sexual assault than the story published in the Article. Ultimately, the police concluded that there was no substantive basis in fact to conclude that an incident occurred consistent with the facts in the Article. In April 2015, after a report by the Columbia Journalism Review described the Article as a "journalistic failure" and concluded that defendants "set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting, " Rolling Stone "officially retracted" and removed the Article from its website. Id. ¶ 14. Eramo granted a limited interview to the Columbia Journalism Review as part of their investigation for the report.

         On May 12, 2015, Eramo filed a six-count defamation action arising not only from the allegations in the Article but also from other statements made by the defendants in subsequent media appearances. On May 29, 2015, defendants removed the instant action from the Circuit Court for the City of Charlottesville pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332, 1441, and 1446. Following the close of discovery, plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment and defendants moved for summary judgment. The court held a hearing on the motions on August 12, 2016. The motions have been fully briefed and are now ripe for disposition.

         Standard of Review

         An award of summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, the court must "view the facts and all justifiable inferences arising therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013). "When faced with cross-motions for summary judgment, [courts] consider each motion separately on its own merits to determine whether either of the parties deserves judgment as a matter of law." Bacon v. City of Richmond. 475 F.3d 633, 636-37 (4th Cir. 2007). "The court must deny both motions if it finds that there is a genuine dispute of material fact, but if there is no genuine issue and one or the other party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law, the court will render judgment." Sky Angel U.S., LLC v. Discovery Commc'ns., LLC, 95 F.Supp.3d 860, 869 (D. Md. 2015) (citations omitted).

         Discussion

         I. Public Official or Limited-Purpose Public Figure

         Both sides have moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether Eramo was a public official or a limited-purpose public figure. If Eramo was a public official or limited-purpose public figure at the time of publication, as part of her defamation case, she must prove by clear and convincing evidence that defendants acted with actual malice. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-280 (1964); Gertz v. Robert Welch, 418 U.S. 323, 342 (1974). The issue of whether Eramo was a public official ...


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