Former NY Prosecutor’s Defamation Claim Survives Netflix’s Motion to Dismiss

On August 9th, 2021, a U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled on a defamation lawsuit arising out of the depiction of a former prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, in Netflix’s limited series “When They See Us.” The series depicted the arrests, trials, and convictions of the “Central Park Five” from 1989-1990. The Five were released from prison and had their convictions tossed out after a convicted serial rapist and murderer confessed to the crimes in 2002.

Fairstein argued that Netflix defamed her in its portrayal of her throughout the series. According to Fairstein, she has received death threats and had her career as a crime novelist damaged as a direct result of the series’ release. Netflix filed a motion to dismiss her claims on the ground that Fairstein had not stated a valid claim for defamation.

The Court tossed out a number of Fairstein’s claims, holding that the scenes in question portrayed Fairstein conducting routine activities in some cases and conveyed the subjective opinions of the show’s creators in others. However, the Court found that five of Fairstein’s defamation claims were valid. As a result, those claims (discussed below) survived Netflix’s motion to dismiss.

The Court held that Fairstein stated a valid defamation claim regarding scenes that depict her withholding evidence, scenes suggesting the existence of tapes that show Fairstein coercing confessions from the Central Park Five, a scene depicting Fairstein telling law enforcement not to use “kid gloves” when questioning the boys and directing a “racially discriminatory police roundup” of boys in Harlem. The Court also ruled that Netflix failed to demonstrate that the depiction of Fairstein was substantially true. Netflix explained that its portrayal of Fairstein aligned with Fairstein’s comments and publicly expressed viewpoints regarding the prosecution of the Central Park Five in the years since their conviction. However, the Court ruled that the evidence Netflix introduced to support this argument failed to prove that its portrayals of Fairstein in those scenes were substantially accurate.

Fairstein is represented by Andrew T. Miltenberg and Kara L. Gorycki of Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP.

Netflix is represented by Natalie J. Spears, Gregory R. Naron, Jacqueline A. Giannini, Sandra D. Hauser, and Kiran Patel of Dentons US LLP.

The case is Linda Fairstein v. Netflix Inc. et al., case number 1:20-cv-08042, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

* Lowe & Associates (“The Firm”) is an entertainment and business law firm located in Beverly Hills, California. The firm has extensive experience handling cases involving defamation and libel, having provided top-quality legal services to its clients since 1991. The Firm is recognized for its many achievements, including successfully litigating many high-profile cases.

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