Eaton Peabody Scores Defamation Victory

Berney Kubetz and Erica Johanson achieved an unqualified victory for client Maine Antique Digest, its owner and staff reporter in a defamation action filed in federal court in Pennsylvania.

The Plaintiffs were a Pennsylvania couple who had engaged a local auction house to sell a significant portion of their antique toy collection in 2013. Following the sale, the Reeses sued the auctioneer, several individuals involved in the auction, and the Maine Antique Digest—“the nation’s leading antique journal” according to the complaint. The Digest had published an article covering the sale. The Reeses claimed that the sale brought far less than it should have as a result of a conspiracy among the Defendants to deflate the value of the Reeses’ collection and scoop the best pieces for themselves and for later resale at higher values. The Complaint alleged that the Digest conspired with the other Defendants to denigrate the Plaintiffs’ reputation and that of their toy collection.

At the heart of the Reeses’ complaint against the Digest were characterizations in the article to their collection as “middle-market”, and an observation that

Everyone in the toy world seemed to know that the major consignor was Carter Reese, a longtime collector who bought toys that he loved before collectors got hung up on condition. It didn’t matter to him if the toy had replaced figures, was repainted, or if much of the paint was missing. If the toy had charm and was cheap, he bought it.

These statements seeded a thicket of federal and state law statutory and common-law claims against the Digest generally based in defamation and invasion of privacy but also including allegations of Lanham Act violations, state-law unfair competition, injurious falsehood, false light, and commercial disparagement. In dismissing all claims against the Digest, the Court agreed with Kubetz and Johanson that, as a matter of law, the 54-page complaint and the Digest article did not justify continuation of the lawsuit against the Maine-based publisher or its employees. The Court also agreed that the Reeses had failed to carry their burden under the 1st Amendment to establish actual malice on the part of the Digest. The Court also noted that it was implausible that any statements in the article could have impacted the value of the collection sold at the auction because “it must be remembered, of course, that the Article was published after the sale occurred.”

The decision can be found in Reese v. Maine Antique Digest et al., No. 5:14-cv-05715-LS (E.D. Pa. January 27, 2016).