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NJ Supreme Court Hears Defamation Suit against Local Newspaper

The Supreme Court of New Jersey decided a defamation and false-light suit in February 2012 for the defendants, principals with the weekly local newspaper, The Nutley Sun. The suit was initiated by two individuals who were the subject of civil action brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the perpetuating of a $9 million scam, a classic pump and dump.

According to the SEC, the plaintiffs in the instant case, Ronald Durando and Gustavo Dotoli, obtained control of a failed telecommunications company, renamed it, then allegedly paid an Internet stock newsletter to tout their company as a promising Internet phone-service company, drove the stock price up to $19.50, then dumped it.

On November 15, 2005, the SEC filed a complaint with the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut alleging illegal insider trading, on the part of the plaintiffs in the instant case. The action was reported in The Nutley Sun in their December 8, 2005 issue. The article in the weekly was on page eleven, and on the front page read the teaser: Local Men Arrested in Pump and Dump Scheme, page 11.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs contacted The Nutley Sun and its parent company, New Jersey Media Group, demanding a retraction, the primary issue being the word “arrested.” The Nutley Sun missed the deadline for the retraction and the suit went through.

The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the false-light and defamation claims, and dismissed the action for lack of evidence to support actual malice. The appellate division affirmed.

The New Jersey Supreme Court granted plaintiff’s petition for certification. Durando v. Nutley Sun, 203 N.J. 93 (2010).

In analysis, the Supreme Court considered the deposition of Paul Milo, executive editor of The Nutley Sun and author of the teaser under contention. He characterized the word “arrested” in the teaser as a mistake on his part, explaining that he was harried in meeting a printing deadline. The court accepted this explanation, ruled it sufficient to negate the “actual-malice” requirement for both the false-light and defamation issues. The court noted New Jersey’s free-speech statute was even more encompassing, especially with regard to newsworthy issues, and that sloppy journalism and an honest mistake did not constitute actual-malice.

A lengthy dissenting opinion was published that asserted the majority in its decision perceived incorrectly the significance of a falsehood in a front page teaser, that they failed to weigh the factual assertions in accordance with applicable summary judgment standards, and that they effectively created a new standard for journalistic practices. See: Durando v. Nutley Sun, 209 N.J. 235, 37 A.3d 449 (N.J. 2012).

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Related legal case

Durando v. Nutley Sun