NORWALK, Conn. — A lawsuit brought by unsuccessful state Senate candidate Marc D’Amelio against journalist Nancy Chapman was withdrawn Monday by his attorney, before a judge could rule on a motion that could have obligated D’Amelio to pay the cost of Chapman’s defense.
D’Amelio’s lawyer, Robert Serafinowicz, told Stamford Superior Court Judge Alex Hernandez that he withdrew the claim due to a conflict involving his expert witness, without whom he could not proceed.
The lawsuit stemmed from an October report by Chapman detailing D’Amelio’s 2014 DUI and child endangerment arrest, expunged in 2016. Although neither D’Amelio nor his attorneys identified any inaccuracies in Chapman’s report, they filed suit in November, alleging intentional/negligent infliction of emotional distress and false light invasion of privacy.
Chapman’s attorneys responded with a special motion to dismiss under Connecticut’s 2018 anti-SLAPP statute, designed to provide for fast dismissal of frivolous lawsuits filed in response to the exercise of First Amendment rights. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.
If granted, the motion to dismiss would have obligated D’Amelio to pay for Chapman’s defense. Since D’Amelio dropped his claims before the judge took up Chapman’s motion, the judge did not address whether her attorneys are entitled to an award of defense costs. Chapman’s attorneys said Tuesday they are reviewing options to recover costs.
“The Connecticut Anti-SLAPP law was enacted to cut off precisely this sort of vindictive litigation brought to chill speech, and the new law had its intended effect here,” said Yale law student Kelsey Stimson, who was part of Chapman’s legal team. “We are pleased with the prompt withdrawal of the claims, but this case should never have been brought.”
Retired Westport lawyer Alan Neigher said Wednesday that in more than 40 years practicing media law, he has never seen a case dropped for the reason D’Amelio’s attorney gave.
“All (Serafinowicz) had to do was find another expert,” Neigher said.
“When they’re not disposed to find another expert who’s not conflicted out, that kind of tells you what they think of their case.”
Serafinowicz did not respond to a request for comment.
Chapman credited the outcome to “a pro bono legal dream team” led by David Schulz and Bill Fish, Jr., supported by Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA). Schulz, who supervises the MFIA, has been named a top First Amendment lawyer by “Best Lawyers in America” for the past 18 years, and has successfully defended The New York Times, The Associated Press, The New Yorker, and now NancyOnNorwalk.
Fish, a Hartford-based First Amendment expert, has successfully represented the Hartford Courant for more than 30 years. He was assisted by associate Alexa T. Millinger.
“I am very grateful for their efforts,” Chapman said.
Yale Law School’s MFIA supervising attorney John Langford spearheaded the preparation of a 30-page brief in support of the motion to dismiss D’Amelio’s suit, contending that all of D’Amelio’s claims against Chapman were frivolous, and were barred by Connecticut’s “fair report” privilege, which shields individuals from liability when they accurately report information obtained from public records. Even if the claims against Chapman hadn’t been barred by the fair report privilege, they would have failed under Connecticut state tort law, and would, in any event, be covered by the First Amendment, the memorandum states.
Schulz said in a statement that the MFIA clinic’s mission is to provide pro bono assistance to independent journalists who lack access to the legal services available to large media organizations. “This baseless claim threatened to put NancyOnNorwalk out of business. Representing Nancy to ensure that she can continue to report on Norwalk government is what we exist to do.”
Fish said he took the case pro bono because “local, dedicated journalism – especially not for profit – is an incredibly important resource.”
Chapman, founder of nonprofit news site NancyOnNorwalk.com, based her story on a copy of the arrest report that was mailed to her anonymously. When she contacted D’Amelio for comment, his attorney threatened to sue, stating incorrectly that publishing details of the expunged arrest would constitute libel. Chapman verified that true statements cannot be libelous, and published her story Oct. 9.
According to the arrest report, Norwalk police stopped D’Amelio at 2:30 a.m. on South Main Street for driving erratically, and observed his 9-year-old daughter in the front seat and three passengers in the back who D’Amelio professed not to know. He told police that he had been distributing casino winnings to teach his daughter generosity, and would fail a sobriety test because he had Parkinson’s. He failed a field sobriety test, and two subsequent breathalyzer tests.
D’Amelio lost the election to State Sen. Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) by a margin of 63% to 37%. His suit against Chapman claimed more than $15,000 in damages, and contained numerous demonstrably false statements.
D’Amelio’s suit also named the City of Norwalk as a defendant, charging that its police department conspired against him by intentionally releasing details of his expunged arrest. The arrest report the police provided to Chapman was heavily redacted, with no details of the DUI and child endangerment offenses. She based her story on the mailed report. On Monday, Serafinowicz said he would refile a negligence suit against the city.
Chapman thanked the competing Norwalk Hour for its support, which included a column by Matt DeRienzo, Hearst Connecticut Media vice president of news and digital content, that described D’Amelio’s lawsuit as frivolous, and Chapman as a “serious journalist who works diligently to bring information to light for the public.” An Hour editorial likened D’Amelio’s decision to sue to that of a “sore loser and bully” and noted that it would be difficult to find a more committed journalist than Chapman.
Asked what’s next, Chapman replied: “We can all move on. I was confident I had done the right thing and I’m very thankful that learned people in the legal profession stepped up to defend journalism. I’m also thankful for the support we received from the community.”
Bob Welsh is Chair of the nonprofit NancyOnNorwalk’s Board of Directors. NoN is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).