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Second Circuit issues significant ruling in Palin v. New York Times Co.

On August 6, 2019, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a significant ruling in Palin v. New York Times Company. The Second Circuit panel (Walker, Chin, and Keenan [sitting by designation]), reversed the district court's dismissal of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's defamation lawsuit against the New York Times.


This case arises out of an editorial published on June 14, 2017. The editorial discussed the 2011 shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, as well as the June 14, 2017 shooting in Alexandria, VA in which four people, including Congressman Steve Scalise, were seriously injured. With respect to the 2011 shooting, the editorial discussed the now infamous "crosshairs map" circulated by Palin's political action committee (PAC), and stated that the "link to political incitement was clear." Within a day, the New York Times retracted this language and clarified that the previous version of the editorial had "incorrectly stated that a link existed between political incitement and the 2011 shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords. In fact, no such link was established.”


Retraction and clarification notwithstanding, Palin filed suit alleging that New York Times defamed her. The district court dismissed the Complaint on the ground that Palin had not plausibly alleged "actual malice," an element of defamation which Palin would ultimately need to prove. The Second Circuit reversed, noting procedural errors by the trial court, and further finding that the Proposed Amended Complaint had in fact stated a plausible claim for relief.


While federal court practitioners should review the Decision in its entirety, the following language is likely to be quoted frequently in legal briefs opposing motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6): "it is not the district court’s province to dismiss a plausible complaint because it is not as plausible as the defendant’s theory." The Court continued, "[t]he test is whether the complaint is plausible, not whether it is less plausible than an alternative explanation."


The Court also went out of its way to emphasize that Palin still had a high burden to overcome at trial to ultimately establish her claim. However, Palin's lawsuit will live to fight another day, and the Court's Decision may prove to be important precedent for federal court practitioners with respect to the pleading requirements necessary to avoid dismissal and unlock the doors of discovery.