BUSTOS v. A & E TELEVISION NETWORKS No. 10-1253.
646 F.3d 762 (2011)
Jerry Lee BUSTOS, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. A & E TELEVISION NETWORKS, Defendant-Appellee.
United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit.
July 19, 2011.
Steven D. Zansberg ( Thomas B. Kelley with him on the briefs), Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, L.L.P., Denver, CO, for Defendant-Appellee.
Before MURPHY, GORSUCH, and MATHESON, Circuit Judges.
GORSUCH, Circuit Judge.
Can you win damages in a defamation suit for being called a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang on cable television when, as it happens, you have merely conspired with the Brotherhood in a criminal enterprise? The answer is no. While the statement may cause you a world of trouble, while it may not be precisely true, it is substantially true. And that is enough to call an end to this litigation as a matter of law.
Jerry Lee Bustos is a longtime inmate at the federal supermax facility at Florence, Colorado. Back in 1998, he was chatting with a few acquaintances on the prison yard when another inmate—who seemed to be walking along minding his own business—punched Mr. Bustos in the back of the head. Mr. Bustos wasn't one to back down from an unprovoked attack and the pair quickly squared off as other residents of Florence looked on. After a few minutes, baton-toting prison guards stepped in, but by then Mr. Bustos had
Unfortunately for Mr. Bustos, the entire episode was captured by a prison surveillance camera. And worse, A & E Television Networks got a hold of the footage and featured it on its national cable television show, Gangland: Aryan Brotherhood. The program paired images of Mr. Bustos with a stentorian narrator who described the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, its white-supremacist views, and its violent history.
Mr. Bustos complains that this in-all-ways-unsolicited television appearance has caused him an acre of difficulty. He says the program's suggestion that he is a member of the Aryan Brotherhood has devastated his popularity around the jail. The Brotherhood, it turns out, did not appreciate his publicly appearing as a member without their invitation. And other gangs have also apparently become leery that Mr. Bustos might be a clandestine member of the Brotherhood. So now, Mr. Bustos complains, he has received death threats and for his own safety can't be transferred to a less restrictive form of custody. Despite his best efforts, he just can't convince his fellow prisoners that he's not actually a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Frustrated by all this, Mr. Bustos brought a defamation suit against A & E under Colorado law. The district court agreed that the show effectively called him a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, and that the statement was defamatory, but it entered summary judgment against Mr. Bustos all the same. This because, the court found, the statement was substantially true—and a substantially true statement isn't actionable in defamation. It is this result Mr. Bustos now appeals.
A statement is defamatory if it "tends [ ] to harm the reputation of another [so] as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him." Burns v. McGraw-Hill Broad., Co.,
This defense has, in comparatively recent years, taken on a constitutional patina, becoming not just a feature of the common law but a First Amendment imperative. See New York Times v. Sullivan,
Because no one disputes that our case involves a matter of public concern, it falls to Mr. Bustos to carry this exacting burden. But what exactly does Mr. Bustos have to do to show that the statement he challenges is "false"? Under Colorado law, much as elsewhere, it is not enough for the plaintiff to show that the defendant got some innocuous detail wrong; the plaintiff must show that the challenged defamatory statement is not just false but material. See Gomba v. McLaughlin, 180 Colo. 232,
But to say that the misstatement must be material only raises questions of its own—material to whom? And for what purpose? The answer to these questions takes us back to and can be found in the interest the American defamation tort is intended to protect—the plaintiff's public reputation. Because this is the particular purpose the defamation tort is aimed at, we assess the materiality of a misstatement by comparing the damage it has done to the plaintiff's public reputation to the damage the truth would have caused. See
By requiring a significant impact on the plaintiff's public reputation when compared to the truth, the material falsehood requirement works as a screen against trivial claims. See Gomba, 504 P.2d at 339. And this requirement is hardly unique to defamation law; the plaintiff or prosecution in many tort and criminal contexts—fraud and perjury are two obvious examples—must also prove not just a falsehood but a material falsehood as part of its case-in-chief. See RST § 538, cmt. e (an allegedly fraudulent misrepresentation is material if "a reasonable man would have regarded the fact misrepresented to be important in determining his course of action"); Model Penal Code § 241.1 (1962) (in perjury proceedings a "[f]alsification is material ... if it could have affected the course or outcome of the proceeding"). After all, without such a limitation, every error in detail—no matter how slight or irrelevant in the scheme of things—could lead to not just protracted civil proceedings but also criminal liability. And while the law is often demanding, rarely is it so punctilious.
Some have suggested that this same essential screening function might be better served by an "incremental harm" rule. See, e.g., Kevin L. Kite, Incremental Identities: Libel-Proof Plaintiffs, Substantial Truth, and the Future of the Incremental Harm Doctrine, 73 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 529, 562-63 (1998). As it is typically described, an incremental harm rule seeks to compare the allegedly false statements about the plaintiff in a particular publication with unchallenged (or true) statements found in the same publication. It then permits recovery only if the false statements do some harm over and above the damage caused by the true ones. Id. at 543-43. But this alternative hasn't been adopted by the Colorado Supreme Court (to date, at least) and it's open to criticism for being simultaneously both too narrow and too broad.
Too narrow because incremental harm depends on what happens to be contained in the same publication. Inexplicably, a defendant may lose the defense simply because he didn't publish as many bad facts about the plaintiff as he could have. But even more troubling is the doctrine's breadth. If an article calls Benedict Arnold a thief and a traitor, the "incremental harm" done by the first statement might
The material falsehood requirement that Colorado does recognize serves the same screening function as incremental harm while avoiding these hidden complications. Both doctrines compare the harm of a lie with the harm of the truth. But the material falsehood requirement allows us to consider true facts wherever and whenever discovered, doing away with incremental harm's seemingly arbitrary fixation on what happens to have been included in the same publication. At the same time, the material falsehood requirement narrows our comparison to statements on the same subject matter, making the task more amenable to judicial determination and the outcome more predictable to potential litigants. The incremental harm (or libel-proof plaintiff) analysis asks courts to compare harms flowing from statements on radically different matters that may even be incommensurable—which is worse, a perjurer or an inside trader? a liar or a cheat? By contrast, the material falsehood analysis focuses judicial attention on the comparatively narrow question whether the particular challenged statement is true or false on its own terms—a task that falls well within the traditional (if human and imperfect) truth-finding function of juries and judges. See RST § 581A, cmt. f; Liberty Lobby, 746 F.2d at 1568 n. 6.
To be sure, the questions whether a statement is defamatory and whether it contains a material falsehood sometimes overlap. What's the difference between saying that the plaintiff sucker-punched an elderly man on St. Patrick's Day, when the truth is that he bashed the elderly man with a club on a different day in March? If the plaintiff complained only
Unsurprisingly, deciding the materiality of a falsehood often requires a jury. Whether a particular misstatement is likely to injure the plaintiff's reputation in the mind of a reasonable member of the community is often best decided by reasonable members of the community. But like nearly any other element of a tort this one is amenable to resolution at summary judgment when, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-movant, the answer is beyond cavil. See Anderson v. Cramlet,
We don't doubt that the public thinks worse of Aryan Brotherhood prison gang members than standard-issue prisoners. But that only means A & E's statement—its indication that Mr. Bustos is a member of the Aryan Brotherhood—is defamatory or hurtful to his public reputation. We must still compare A & E's statement against the truth of the matter. And on that score the facts reveal that, while Mr. Bustos isn't formally a member of the Brotherhood, he surely did affiliate with the organization. In the A & E footage, Mr. Bustos is seen chatting with two Aryan Brotherhood members and a member of yet another gang up until the moment he gets punched. And his relationship with the Brotherhood hasn't been limited to rec yard chats. In a conspiracy ultimately detected and disrupted by prison officials, Mr. Bustos agreed to receive balloons filled with heroin from a prison visitor; insert them into his body; and then pass them along to three prison gangs, including the Aryan Brotherhood. When things went awry, Mr. Bustos found himself—balloons and all—locked in solitary confinement. After this delay upset certain intended recipients, Mr. Bustos sent a handwritten apology to an Aryan Brotherhood leader. The note—which refers to the leader repeatedly as "bro"— explains the situation and promises the balloons will soon be on their way. It concludes by sending Mr. Bustos's "respect" and asking the Aryan Brotherhood leader to "give my regards" to still three other Brotherhood members.
Comparing the challenged defamatory statement (membership in the Aryan Brotherhood) to the truth (conspiring with and aiding and abetting the Aryan Brotherhood), we cannot see how any juror could find the difference to be a material one—that is, likely to cause a reasonable member of the general public to think significantly less favorably of Mr. Bustos. The difference or delta between the defamatory statement and the truth might cause some modicum of additional injury to his reputation, that we don't deny, but it is not one a juror could find likely to be significant to a reasonable person. Tellingly, Mr. Bustos points to nothing in the record he has developed through the entire
Notably, too, this court and others have found similar and arguably greater factual discrepancies immaterial as a matter of law. For example, this court has held it immaterial that the plaintiff was wrongly labeled a "kidnapper" when he was actually convicted of violating a custody order. Anderson, 789 F.2d at 843-45. Others have held immaterial statements that a judge "ordered" the parties to settle when in fact the judge only "recommended" a settlement—and that a person was "fired" when in truth he'd voluntarily resigned under less than favorable circumstances. See Tex. Monthly, Inc. v. Transamerican Natural Gas Corp.,
Perhaps most pointedly of all, the Sixth Circuit rejected a defamation suit brought by James (brother of Terry) Nichols against movie maker Michael Moore. In the movie, Moore reported that James Nichols was "arrested in connection" with the Oklahoma City bombing. Actually, Nichols was arrested for an unrelated explosives offense and was considered only a material witness in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing. See Nichols v. Moore,
Mr. Bustos protests that calling him a member of the Aryan Brotherhood has a special sting given that he's Hispanic. He reminds us that the Aryan Brotherhood is a white-supremacist organization, and argues that falsely associating him with the group suggests that he's someone who has "renounc[ed] his Hispanic heritage." But even granting all this to Mr. Bustos for argument's sake, the truth is that he did intentionally aid and abet the Brotherhood. And having willingly helped the Brothers flout prison security measures as part of a criminal conspiracy, it's a few years too late to take a principled stand against their agenda. To the extent reasonable persons would find the views and practices of the Brotherhood abhorrent—and surely they would—they would also be appalled that Mr. Bustos has given that group his aid and comfort, risking administrative and criminal sanction to help their cause.
Of course, this isn't to say that no one makes a distinction between the Aryan Brotherhood's criminal accessories and its full-fledged members; it's almost certain, for example, that the Brotherhood does. But, as we have explained, defamation
Mr. Bustos replies that there is still at least one way in which the difference between being called a member and an accessory matters, one more material distinction we haven't yet considered. A & E's program took great pains to inform the viewing public of the Brotherhood's so-called "blood in, blood out" rule—the principle that one must commit a homicide or an attempted homicide to be inducted as a full-fledged member. This, Mr. Bustos says, makes the difference between being a member and an accessory a material one, because the respectable public would surely think worse of him if he murdered. But this line of attack, however promising on first glance, runs headlong into the truth. Whether A & E knew it at the time, after discovery we all know now that Mr. Bustos has at least one brutal gang-related attempted homicide in his past. So in this respect the difference between truth and falsity is not just immaterial—it doesn't exist. There is no falsity, let alone a material one, when it comes to A & E's challenged implication that Mr. Bustos has at least attempted murder. He has.
Of course, A & E tries to pile on, spending much of its brief dwelling on Mr. Bustos's ties to another gang (the Mexikanemi, or Texas Mexican Mafia) and his lengthy record of violent behavior in and out of prison—including convictions for burglary, robbery, and escape. The point of all this, A & E says, is that any further harm to Mr. Bustos's public reputation is impossible; he is libel-proof, at least when it comes to matters of violent crimes and prison gang membership. But we have already explained our reluctance to venture down this path. Instead of attempting a far-ranging incremental harm or libel-proof plaintiff analysis—instead of trying to compare the "badness" of A & E's Aryan Brotherhood statement with the "badness" of Mr. Bustos's life story viewed in full—we hold only that the narrow and particular defamatory statement Mr. Bustos chose to challenge (being labeled a member of the Aryan Brotherhood) is itself substantially true as a matter of law.
Mr. Bustos's defamation claim is dismissed and the judgment is affirmed. Mr. Bustos's motion to strike portions of A & E's answer brief is denied as moot. The redacted briefs filed on March 18 and 21, 2011 are ordered unsealed.
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