On September 5, 2012, Mickey “Memphitz” Wright Jr., a former Jive Records executive, brought a cause of action for defamation in the United States Northern District of Georgia against Kimberly Michelle Pate, his former girlfriend, the owners of the VH1 network and the producers of the network’s hit show Love and Hip Hop Atlanta. The defamation suit stems from allegations that were aired during an episode of the show in which Pate accused Wright of embezzlement and domestic physical abuse during their former relationship.
Love and Hip Hop Atlanta is a popular reality television show with a large fan base. The show first aired in June 2012 with 1.9 million viewers and has only gotten more popular with each episode evidenced by the 4.4 million viewers watching the season finale on September 3, 2012. These numbers represent the number of people who perhaps were exposed to these allegations made by Pate while watching the show.
A major issue in Wright’s suit for defamation is that he is a former record executive, and known to a considerable population in the music recording industry, so it must be determined whether or not he would be considered a public figure. In Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts, the United States Supreme Court stated “[a] ‘public figure’ who is not a public official may also recover damages for a defamatory falsehood whose substance makes substantial danger to reputation apparent…” and in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., the Court stated individuals who “by reason of the notoriety of their achievements or the vigor and success with which they seek the public’s attention, are properly classed as public figures.” This classification is important because suits for defamation are considerably harder for a public figure plaintiff to win because he must show that the defendant made a false statement with “actual malice.” To show Pate acted with actual malice, Wright must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that at the time the statements were made she knew them to be false or was reckless as to whether they were false or not. To prove the owners of VH1 and the producers of the show acted with actual malice, Wright must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that at the time the statements were aired the defendants knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard as to whether the statements were true or not. Another issue Wright may have to contend with is the fact that Pate did not actually say his name when the statements were made. She simply referred to an unnamed former record executive. Because Pate is a former R&B singer and thus in the recording industry herself, many people in the industry that knew of their relationship and watched the show were able to make the connection and subsequently, these allegations have been reported all over various news stations and websites specifically naming Wright as the purported offender. According to Wright, this publicity has caused him emotional distress and the inability to make a higher income in the future due to the impairment to his reputation which is one of the elements he must prove to make his claim for defamation.
Wright is suing for $15 million in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages and must prove actual malice on the part of each defendant, particularly necessary in order to be awarded punitive damages in a defamation suit. In Merco Joint Venture v. Kaufman, Merco, a wastewater disposal company, was shown in a bad light on a local television show broadcast by Tri State Broadcasting Company. Merco brought suit for defamation against the reporter on the show, the producers of the show and Tri State, the owner of the television station itself. The court addressed the responsibility of a broadcaster before a show is aired and stated that those responsible for the show’s actual content are more responsible for the content that is aired and it would be economically unfeasible for a broadcaster to monitor every feed that comes from a network source. Furthermore, the court looked to evidence such as internal memorandum between the producers of the show, the show’s original version in relation to the edited broadcast version, and actual knowledge the reporter and producers of the show had regarding the content of what was being aired to conclude that a jury could reasonably find that the reporter and producers acted with “malicious intent” in shooting, editing, and producing the footage that was eventually aired, but not the broadcaster.
Therefore, it may be difficult for Wright to prove the owners of the VH1 network acted with actual malice if he cannot prove that it is their responsibility to be aware of the truthfulness of all content of every show that is aired on their network. However, if Wright has evidence tending to show that his former girlfriend, through actual knowledge of the events, knew that the statements she made were false he could win his defamation suit against Pate and if he can show evidence that the producers of the show were aware that the statements made by Pate might be false or if they acted with reckless disregard as to whether the statements were false or not and edited the show in a manner that aired the statements anyway, he may have a viable defamation claim against the producers of the show as well.