A defamation lawsuit over a now-retracted Fox News story about the investigation into the 2016 murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was dismissed Thursday by U.S. District Judge George Daniels of the Southern District of New York.
“In this case, plaintiff and defendants embarked on a collective effort to support a sensational claim regarding Seth Rich’s murder,” Daniels wrote. “Plaintiff cannot now seek to avoid the consequences of his own complicity and coordinated assistance in perpetuating a politically motivated story not having any basis in fact.”
The suit, brought by Fox contributor Rod Wheeler, alleged the media company allowed the producers of the piece to falsely attribute quotes to him, suggesting a conspiracy around the death that extended to the upper echelons of the Democratic Party.
The suit generated substantial attention when it was filed by Wigdor LLP on Wheeler’s behalf last year. Since then, it has taken a tumultuous journey. A sanctions motion was filed against Wigdor by regular Fox News guest Ed Butowsky. Wigdor sought and was granted permission by the court to be removed from the suit. Butowsky, one of the defendants, has been accused by Wigdor’s team of repeatedly reaching out with threatening calls and emails after they were severed from the case. He’s denied that was his intent.
In his order Thursday, Daniels found that there was a failure to prove false all five statements Wheeler alleged to be defamatory. As the defendants argued, Wheeler made statements on television claiming a source had information linking Rich to the radical transparency group WikiLeaks. These statements ultimately jibed with what appeared in the article itself, and Wheeler failed to make distinctions between what was his information and what he had been told by Butowsky and others, the judge found.
Daniels, going further, noted that even if the statements could be shown to be false, neither could form the basis of a defamation claim. On the one hand, the quote simply stated what Wheeler’s investigation showed, and the phrasing of that findings of that investigation in the story, “do not impugn plaintiff’s skills as an investigator or otherwise tend to expose him to contempt or ridicule,” the judge found.
Daniels also dealt with a sanctions motion filed by Butowsky against Wigdor and Wheeler. The motion argued the suit failed to state a fact that supported the court’s personal jurisdiction over Butowsky, despite pointing to Fox’s New York location and Butowsky’s connections to the media company. The rest of the sanction motions, according to Daniels, essentially reiterated Butowsky’s motion to dismiss, and can’t make up the basis for imposing sanctions.
The judge also declined to award attorney fees and costs to either party, noting that “the situation in which all of the parties now find themselves hardly engenders sympathy.”
In a statement, Wigdor name attorney Douglas Wigdor said that because the firm no longer represents Wheeler, it would be inappropriate to comment on the motion to dismiss decision.
“However, we are not surprised that the court denied the sanctions motion as it had no basis in fact or law and thus should never have been filed in the first place,” he said.
Reached by phone, Wheeler said he respected the court’s decision, while adding it was unfortunate.
“I just really hope that someday, one day, the killer of Seth Rich is found,” Wheeler said.
A spokeswoman for Fox News did not respond to a request for comment. The media company’s counsel was led by Williams & Connolly partner Kevin Baine, who did not respond to a request for comment.
Spiro Harrison name attorney David Harrison represented Butowsky in the matter. In a statement, Harrison said he and his client were happy with the result and Daniels’ “thoughtful opinion” dismissing the claims.
A spokeswoman for Fox News said the channel declined to comment.
In a separate decision also by Daniels, a separate defamation suit was filed by Rich’s parents against the same defendants.