12:05, August 03 164 0 abajournal.com

2018-08-03 12:05:06
Judge tosses two suits against Fox News over retracted story about slain DNC staffer

A federal judge in Manhattan has dismissed two lawsuits against Fox News for a retracted story that claimed Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich had leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks before his shooting death in July 2016.

U.S. District Judge George Daniels on Thursday dismissed suits filed by Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Rich, and former detective Rod Wheeler, who had been hired to investigate the shooting death. The Rich lawsuit claimed Fox News intentionally caused them emotional distress, while Wheeler said he was misquoted in the story. Courthouse News Service, the New York Law Journal and the New York Times have coverage.

Intelligence officials have concluded Russia hacked and leaked the emails, while law enforcement has attributed Rich’s unsolved July 2016 murder to a botched robbery.

Daniels said the Rich lawsuit was essentially asserting a claim for defamation, and Joel and Mary Rich can’t skirt restrictions on defamation lawsuits by styling their lawsuit as a claim for emotional distress. The Fox News statements concern Seth Rich, not his parents, and New York law does not allow a defamation claim when statements about a deceased person are not a direct reflection on that person’s relatives, Daniels said in the opinion.

In addition, the lawsuit fails to meet the high legal standard of extreme and outrageous conduct needed to support a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, Daniels said.

Daniels said the Wheeler lawsuit fails because the alleged misquotes he targets can’t be proven to be false. Wheeler had taken issue with quotes attributed to him in the Fox story saying his investigation “shows there was some degree of email exchange between Seth Rich and WikiLeaks” and someone in the D.C. government, the DNC or the Clinton team is blocking the investigation.

But Daniels said in his opinion that those alleged false statements aren’t materially different than statements Wheeler had himself made.

Daniels noted that Wheeler had sent Fox News a message that said he believes the answers to who murdered Rich are on his computer, sitting on a shelf with Washington, D.C., police or the FBI. The email also said that a police detective investigating the murder told Wheeler that DNC officials wanted to know why he was snooping around.

In an interview with a Fox affiliate, Wheeler had also said he “absolutely” had FBI sources that could link Seth Rich to WikiLeaks.

Wheeler “cannot now seek to avoid the consequences of his own complicity and coordinated assistance in perpetuating a politically motivated story not having any basis in fact,” Daniels said.

Daniels also said that, even if the Fox News statements about Wheeler’s findings were capable of being proven false, they couldn’t form the basis for a defamation claim because it’s impossible to ascertain whether they reflect Wheeler’s incompetence as an investigator.