The defamation lawsuit filed by Kailyn Lowry against her Teen Mom 2 co-star Briana DeJesus (Soto) tossed after being deemed without merit.
Circuit Judge Robert Egan issued his ruling on Briana’s Motion For Summary Judgment earlier today. The first part of the ruling addressed whether or not Briana was entitled to be notified five days in advance of the lawsuit being filed due to her being a “media defendant.” (Kail’s attorney’s did not provide notification as is required in Florida for media defendants.)
From the ruling:
Soto’s Instagram live posts relate only to her personal life and involvement with the Teen Mom 2 show. While Soto will comment on others involved in her life, and who may be affiliated with Teen Mom 2 (like the statements at issue here), the main focus of the broadcasts relate only to Soto, which does not qualify her as a “media defendant.” Accordingly, the Court rules that pre-suit notice under 770.01 was not required under the facts presented here.
The second part of the ruling addressed whether or not the actual defamation claims had merit. The judge essentially said that Kail was arrested for domestic violence and that arrest was covered in the media. Briana later saying that Kail broke into Chris Lopez’s mom’s house “did nothing to change the fact that Lowry was in fact arrested for domestic violence, and did not enhance the sting of previous publications about Lowry’s arrest.”
The only thing left that would make Briana guilty of defamation would be if she made claims she knew were false out of malice. Briana’s source for the claim that Kail broke into Chris’s mother’s house was Chris himself. Kail’s attorney argued repeatedly that the fact that Briana had previously claimed that Chris abused Kail meant that she couldn’t have believed him to be a reliable source of information.
The judge didn’t agree with Kail’s attorney and stated that it would be rational to assume Briana believed Chris’s claims about Kail, even if he might be considered “unreliable” by some. “Lowry’s claim that Soto’s source of the information that Lowry broke into the house (Mr. Lopez) was unreliable does little to establish that Soto knew, with a high degree of awareness, the claim was false,” the ruling reads.
The Motion For Summary Judgment was filed by Briana’s attorney under the Florida Anti-SLAPP statute. Having the motion granted means that Kail will likely be on the hook for the cost of Briana’s attorney.
Significantly, under either anti-SLAPP provision, whichever party prevails on the special motion is entitled to recover attorney’s fees and costs. §§ 768.295(4); 720.304(c). Thus, a SLAPP defendant who does not prevail on an anti-SLAPP motion must pay the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and costs, presenting a significant deterrent from filing even legitimate anti-SLAPP motions.
Briana hired the very well know Marc Randazza to represent her, so those attorney fees are likely to be quite sizable. The judge’s rulling today did not address specific amounts, but did bring up the topic. “The Court reserves jurisdiction to consider the issue of entitlement to attorneys’ fees and the amount of same,” the ruling reads.
Here is most of the judge’s ruling, minus the sections addressing whether or not Briana was entitled to five days notice of the filing:
ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT’S ANTI-SLAPP MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
This matter came before the Court at the March 29, 2022, hearing on the Defendant’s “Anti-SLAPP Motion for Summary Judgment under Fla. Stat. §768.295,” and the Court having reviewed the court filings, heard argument of counsel and being otherwise duly advised in the premises, orders and adjudges as follows:
This case arises out of alleged defamatory statements made by Defendant, Briana Soto (“Soto”), about Plaintiff, Kailyn Lowry (“Lowry”), in a June 8, 2021, Instagram post and an “Instagram Live” presentation on the same date.
Both Soto and Lowry are featured on an MTV reality series called “Teen Mom 2” which follows the lives of young women who gave birth as teenagers as they navigate through the early years of motherhood. In addition to their notoriety from Teen Mom 2, both parties are actively involved with other media outlets. Both, for example, have extensive Instagram followers (with Lowry having over 4 million followers and Soto having more than 1 million). Lowry is also a New York Times best selling author and podcast host while Soto is a social media influencer.
The parties have been engaged in a feud since 2017 for various matters unrelated to the legal issues involved in this case and which will not be addressed here.
The relevant statements generally involve Soto commenting on why Lowry did not appear on an episode of Teen Mom 2. Lowry alleges Soto defamed her by claiming she (Lowry) broke into the home where the father of her children resided (Chris Lopez) and battered him2.
In response to Lowry’s one count Complaint for defamation, Soto filed a motion for summary judgment which raises two theories for dismissal: a) failure to comply with the pre-suit notice requirements of Fla. Stat. §770.01; and b) violation of Florida’s “Anti-SLAPP” statute, Fla. Stat. 768.295, which prohibits so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” Each theory will be discussed below.
Anti-SLAPP – Fla. Stat. §768.295
Generally, anti-SLAPP statutes are designed to protect rights of free speech and prevent people from using courts to intimidate people from exercising their right of free speech.
In Florida, §768.295 specifically protects “free speech in connection with public issues” which is defined, in part, as “any written or oral statement that is protected under applicable law and … is made or in connection with a play, movie, television program, radio broadcast, audiovisual work, book, magazine article, musical work, news report, or other similar work.” (emphasis added). Because the statements at issue relate to the Teen Mom 2 television show, analysis under anti-SLAPP is appropriate.
When analyzing an anti-SLAPP motion, the initial burden is on the SLAPP defendant to set forth a prima facie case that the anti-SLAPP statute applies; upon doing so, the burden shifts to the claimant to demonstrate that the claims are not primarily based on First Amendment rights in connection with a public issue and not without merit. Baird v. Mason Classical Academy, Inc., 317 So. 3d 264 (Fla. 2nd DCA 2021).
Here, because the statements at issue relate to a television show, Soto has met her burden that the anti-SLAPP statute applies. As such, the burden shifts to Lowry to demonstrate the claims are not primarily based on First Amendment rights with a public issue and not without merit. Under the facts presented here, she is unable to do so.
There are two statements at issue: 1) the Instagram written post and 2) the Instagram Live broadcast, both published on or about June 8, 2021. The written post cannot be considered defamatory because, as a matter of law, it contained protected speech regarding opinion or was factually accurate. With respect to alleged criminal conduct, the statement reads: “This was back when a child’s hair was cut and she was allegedly arrested after getting into a physical altercation with her baby daddy.” There is nothing defamatory about this statement because Lowry was, indeed, arrested for “allegedly” having a physical altercation with Chris Lopez. The balance of the statement deals with matters related only to Soto or her opinions about things related to Teen Mom 2 and cannot be considered defamatory in nature.
The Instagram Live post, which lasts less than eleven minutes, primarily consists of Soto’s opinions on various topics such as the nature of her relationship with Lowry and others on the Teen Mom 2 show, why certain footage was used over other footage on an episode, and why Lowry no longer wants to film about her “true life” on the show.
The essence of the alleged defamatory statement on the Instagram Live broadcast consists of the following statement: “…Kail did not want to film about the situation with the domestic violence, about her getting arrested, about her breaking and entering in Kail’s mom, I mean into Chris’s mom’s house. She didn’t want to film about her hitting Chris, because Chris cut her son’s hair. She doesn’t want to film about any of that.”
As mentioned above, Lowry was arrested for a claim she battered Lopez in his mother’s house related to her child’s haircut. The mere addition of Soto’s statement about “breaking and entering” does not change the gist of the statement that Lowry had been arrested. It was widely publicized that Lowry had been arrested for domestic violence and Soto’s comments on the issue were substantially true. The damage to Lowry’s reputation, if any, had already occurred when the incident was publicized by news media.
As a limited public figure, Lowry must also establish the statements were made with actual malice. To do so, she must prove by clear and convincing evidence that Soto either knew the alleged defamatory statements were false, or published them with reckless disregard despite awareness of their probable falsity. Mile Marker, Inc. v. Petersen Publishing, LLC, 811 So. 2d 841, 845 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002). In doing so, a public figure plaintiff must provide proof that the defendant had a “high degree of awareness of … probable falsity” of their statements. Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 74 (1964). Lowry has provided insufficient evidence to establish by clear and convincing evidence that Soto knew, with a high degree of awareness, that her statements were false.
As mentioned above, Soto’s reference to breaking and entering did nothing to change the fact that Lowry was in fact arrested for domestic violence, and did not enhance the sting of previous publications about Lowry’s arrest. Lowry’s claim that Soto’s source of the information that Lowry broke into the house (Mr. Lopez) was unreliable does little to establish that Soto knew, with a high degree of awareness, the claim was false.
Even if the isolated statement regarding “breaking and entering” can be considered defamatory, there is insufficient evidence to establish that Soto knew the statement was false at the time it was made. As a matter of law, Lowry has not met her burden regarding the issue of malice.
Accordingly, it is Ordered and Adjudged as follows:
1. Soto’s Motion for Summary Judgment is hereby granted.
2. The case is hereby dismissed and Judgment is entered in favor of Soto and against Lowry.
3. The Court reserves jurisdiction to consider the issue of entitlement to attorneys’ fees and the amount of same.
Done and Ordered in chambers this 18th day of April, 2022.
Robert Egan, Circuit Judge