Rachel Uchitel v. The New York Post
In 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, a picture of Ms. Uchitel holding a sign of her missing fiancé appeared in newspapers. In 2009, Ms. Uchitel’s photo appeared in the press once again, this time because of her (alleged) affair with golfer Tiger Woods.
For the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and the death of her fiancé, Ms. Uchitel granted an interview to the Post in which she was quoted as saying “I’m almost happy it ended the way it did…It would have been tragic if we got into fights and then divorced” and that if fate had not intervened, she would now be “a fat housewife with three kids living in Sands Point, Long Island”. The interview was published in a preview article on September 6 and in a Page Six Magazine article on September 8.
Ms. Uchitel wants an apology and retraction from the paper. In a letter to the Post, Daniel Horowitz, Ms. Uchitel’s lawyer, stated that the article created a false impression of Ms. Uchitel’s relationship with her fiancé by taking Ms. Uchitel’s statements and assembling them in a way that didn’t accurately portray what she’d said. Mr. Horowitz is also demanding that the Post hand over the videotape of its interview with Ms. Uchitel. The Post stands by its article.
Though the Daily News article noted Ms. Uchitel’s possible legal action, it did not discuss whether she has a valid legal claim. LASIS will analyze.
If Ms. Uchitel did go to court, she would probably sue NYP Holdings, Inc., the owner of the Post for libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Libel: Mr. Horowitz stated that Ms. Uchitel has been in the public eye for 10 years. In doing so, he has conceded that Ms. Uchitel is a public figure. This is important because private individuals and public figures are treated differently under the law for libel claims. This is partly because private individuals don’t have as great of an opportunity as public figures to access the media and have their voices heard. In the 1974 case Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., the Supreme Court stated that private individuals are more susceptible to injury than public figures and should be compensated accordingly.
After her first flirtation with the public eye in 2001, Ms. Uchitel came back into the public light when the National Enquirer featured her in an article about her link to Mr. Woods. (Ms. Uchitel has never publically admitted to having an affair with Mr. Woods.) She later appeared on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, and became a special correspondent for Extra.
According to New York case law, if the person seeking legal relief is a public figure, he must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the published material is false and written with “actual malice” to recover damages. Private individuals don’t have to prove actual malice. In the 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court stated that actual malice means that the words were published with knowledge of its falsity and a reckless disregard for the truth. As a public figure, Ms. Uchitel would need to prove that the Post knew that the information contained in the article was false when it was published.
If Ms. Uchitel were to sue NYP Holdings for libel, NYP Holdings would stand by its story and assert truth as a defense. If what it published is true, then it isn’t libelous. That’s the law. In addition, if the Post paraphrased Ms. Uchitel’s words, it can rely on the 1991 Supreme Court case Masson v. New Yorker Magazine that said quotes can be altered as long as the alteration doesn’t change the meaning of what the speaker is trying to convey. It’s hard to see how her statements, even if quoted out of order or in different words, conveyed anything other than what it sounds like in the article: she loved her fiancé, and a love affair that is cut short doesn’t go flat like others do, with time.
Intentional infliction of emotional distress: According to New York case law, there are four elements of this claim that need to be proven: (1) outrageous and extreme conduct; (2) intent to cause severe emotional distress or disregard of a likelihood of causing severe emotional distress; (3) a cause and effect relationship between the conduct and the injury; and (4) severe emotional distress. It isn’t clear that the Post’s behavior was either outrageous or extreme; we’re not even sure what she is so upset about.
Unless the Post made up the quotes from whole cloth, Ms. Uchitel’s chances of winning any such potential lawsuit are about the same of Tiger Woods winning in golf this past year: dismal.