Subjects of Documentary Exposing Inhumane Treatment of Sugar Cane Plantation Workers Ruled to Be Limited-Purpose Public Figures
Kate Hooker | Bloomberg Law
A district court correctly ruled that sugar cane producers in the Dominican Republic who filed a defamation action against filmmakers who documented the inhumane treatment of workers were limited-purpose public figures and thus required to prove actual malice, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled on December 2, 2011. The Court did not review the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the filmmakers, however, because it also vacated the district court’s denial of plaintiffs’ motion to compel discovery that could provide proof of actual malice.
Summary Judgment in Favor of the Filmmakers
In 2007, a film company called Uncommon Productions, Inc., released a documentary called The Price of Sugar, about the Dominican sugarcane industry and its treatment of Haitian plantation workers, who live in squalid conditions in company-owned towns called bateyes. The film specifically mentioned Felipe and Juan Vicini Lluberes (the Vicini brothers), who are senior executives of a family business that owns and operates sugarcane plantations in the Dominican Republic. Several bateyes owned by the Vicinis were referenced, and the narration implied that the Vicini family was partially responsible for the deplorable conditions.
After the documentary was released at a film festival in Texas, the Vicini brothers filed a defamation action against the filmmakers in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. The filmmakers moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the Vicini brothers were “public figures” under New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), and were thus required to prove actual malice, which they had not done. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the filmmakers. It also denied a motion to compel filed by the Vicini brothers seeking discovery of communications between the filmmakers’ lawyer and a third-party “script annotator” who had been hired to report on the accuracy of the script to assist in efforts to procure insurance for the film. According to the Court, the documents sought were protected by the attorney-client privilege. The Vicini brothers filed a timely appeal.
The Vicini Brothers Are Limited-Purpose Public Figures
Traditionally, defamation law has treated public and private figures differently, making it harder for public figures to prove injury under the theory that they “must accept certain necessary consequences” associated with their status, including being subjected to public scrutiny. See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.,418 U.S. 323 (1974). Gertz and its progeny identify two varieties of public figures: (1) the “general-purpose public figure,” who is so famous as to qualify as a public figure in all contexts; and (2) the “limited-purpose public figure,” who “voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues.” (Quoting Gertz, 418 U.S. at 351.) Thus, an otherwise private figure plaintiff who has attempted to influence the resolution of a public controversy is considered a public figure with respect to that controversy and is thus required to prove actual malice. For the limited-purpose public figure rubric to apply, the public controversy at issue must have existed before the alleged defamation occurred, in order to avoid improper “bootstrapping.”
The issue on appeal was whether the Vicini brothers were limited-purpose public figures with respect to the controversy surrounding bateyes and the treatment of Haitian sugar laborers, which required an examination of the degree of their involvement in the issue. Felipe had a history of involvement in the family’s agricultural enterprises dating back to the mid-1990s and served as the president of Grupo Vicini, which “manages the family’s investments and coordinates initiatives on the bateyes.” Juan joined the company in 2000, was the second-in-command under his brother at Grupo Vicini, and spearheaded several batey-focused initiatives. For example, Juan was involved in efforts to combat HIV/AIDS in the bateyes and personally escorted politicians through thebateyes.
In 2005, a U.S. newspaper published an article that criticized the bateyes system, and the Vicinis responded by launching a $1.2 million public-relations campaign to improve the company’s reputation. The campaign was specifically intended to reach the United States and involved many meetings concerning the bateyes between the Vicini brothers and politicians, religious figures, and reporters in both the Dominican Republic and the United States. The goal of those meetings was to tell the Vicini brothers’ side of the story and to combat negative perceptions about their company’s role with respect to the bateyes. According to the Court, the brothers’ conduct “shows beyond hope of legitimate contradiction that Felipe and Juan are limited purpose public figures,” who “leveraged their positions and contacts to influence a favorable outcome in the batey controversy.” In doing so, the Court continued, “both assumed roles of prominence for this limited purpose and risk of closer public scrutiny that came with it.”
The brothers argued that their public activities only occurred because they were thrust into the spotlight by a 2003 article published by a U.S. newspaper that was critical of the bateyes system, so the filmmakers should be prohibited from “bootstrapping” that conduct to a controversy that did not exist until later. The Court disagreed, however, noting that the bateyes controversy existed long before the article in question was published. The Court similarly rejected the Vicini brothers’ contention that their actions were protected by the common law privilege of reply, which allowed individuals to respond to defamation in a “measured and reasonable” fashion in order to defend themselves, without waiving their status as private figures. The Court declined to “graft the common-law privilege of reply onto the constitutional public-figure analysis,” noting that, by their own admission, the Vicini brothers took minimal action in direct response to the 2003 article. Moreover, the Court observed, “[e]ven if the . . . article had some indirect influence over [the Vicini brothers'] conduct over the next four years, that conduct went well beyond any reasonable measure of self-defense.”
Next, the Court considered the Vicini brothers’ argument that they could not be limited-purpose public figures in the United States, the locus of the alleged defamation, because they were neither famous nor notorious there. This theory was derived from the fact that some courts have required that general-purpose public figures be well-known within the community where the defamation occurred. As the Court explained, however, limited-purpose public figure status is defined not by geography, but by the scope of the underlying controversy. In this case, the bateyes controversy was significant outside of the Dominican Republic. In fact, the Court explained, “it resounded in the United States for obvious humanitarian reasons and a less obvious geopolitical one: a long-standing import quota system under U.S. law that subsidizes Dominican sugar producers, including the Vicinis.” Therefore, the Court reasoned, the Vicini brothers purposely launched a public relations campaign that would reach U.S. politicians and news outlets because of “[c]oncerns that negative publicity about thebateyes might jeopardize the quota system.”
Accordingly, the Court concluded that the Vicini brothers’ conduct was sufficient to render them public figures in the United States for the purposes of the defamation suit. The Court thus affirmed the district court’s conclusion regarding limited-purpose public figure status, but vacated its denial of the Vicini brothers’ motion to compel the documents concerning the script annotator after determining that it was unclear whether the discovery sought was indeed protected by the attorney-client privilege. Because those documents were sought in an attempt to prove actual malice, the Court was unable to meaningfully review the district court’s summary judgment decision without them, and remanded the matter for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.