Survivor Wins Appeal of Defamation Lawsuit from Lawmaker Who Sexually Assaulted Her
October 6. 2021
On Oct. 1, 2021, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Pamela Lopez, a lobbyist who was sued for defamation after speaking out about being sexually assaulted by former California lawmaker Matt Dababneh. Equal Rights Advocates, represented by Reed Smith, supported Ms. Lopez with an amicus brief explaining that defamation lawsuits are increasingly used as silencing tactics to keep survivors from speaking out or seeking justice.
Dababneh, who resigned in 2018 following multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault, sued Lopez for defamation because, after testifying to a California legislative committee about the sexual assault, she recounted her report in a statement to press. In its new decision, the appellate court found that Lopez was protected by Fair Reporting privilege, which says individuals can’t be sued for defamation if they are simply reporting on what was already said in specific contexts, such as reports to a legislative committee.
Lopez was represented in her appeal by California Anti-SLAPP Project and Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP. Debabneh was represented by Patricia Glazer, who also represented Harvey Weinstein.
“This is a big win for survivors and their advocates, who work hard to expose sexual violence so we can address its prevalence and find solutions, rather than continuing to sweep it under the rug.” – ERA Senior Counsel Brenda Adams
As explained in our brief, victim advocates have seen a recent increase in filed or threatened defamation lawsuits used to strategically intimidate survivors of sexual assault and harassment into silence. We urged the court to consider the negative precedent that could be set by allowing Dababneh to establish both malicious intent and falsity by simply denying the sexual assault occurred. (In defamation lawsuits involving public figures like Dababneh, both falsity and malice must be proven before the case can proceed to trial.)
“Survivors are already reluctant to come forward because they are so often disbelieved or shamed,” said ERA Senior Counsel Brenda Adams. “If on top of everything else, an assailant could sue a survivor for defamation simply by denying the assault took place, it would prevent even more people from coming forward.
This is a big win for survivors and their advocates, who work hard to expose sexual violence so we can address its prevalence and find solutions, rather than continuing to sweep it under the rug.”
As our brief points out, the more survivors are allowed and encouraged to speak out about the sexual harm they endured, the more likely other victims will feel comfortable coming forward.