In a new lawsuit that tests the boundaries of news reporting and opinion writing, Sacramento Kings center Richaun Holmes has sued Sacramento Bee owner The McClatchy Company, as well as Bee opinion writer Robin Epley and his ex-wife Allexis Holmes for defamation.
The 28-page complaint was filed last Friday in a California trial court. Brown Rudnick partner Camille Vasquez, who successfully litigated on behalf of Johnny Depp in his defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard, is representing Holmes.
At issue are Bee stories that addressed a contentious custody dispute over Richaun’s and Allexis’s 6-year-old son. Allexis accused her ex-husband of committing abusive acts against her and their son; Richaun denied the allegations. Richaun, 29, argues that his ex-wife knowingly lied about him in a series of discussions with Epley, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2019 who joined the Bee in 2021.
Last March, the Kings announced that Holmes would miss the remainder of the season for undisclosed personal reasons. About a week later, the Bee published an opinion story written by Epley, featuring the headline, “The ugly reason the Kings shut down Richaun Holmes early: domestic violence accusations.” Citing court documents, the story summarized and quoted Allexis’ accusations and mentioned that she sought a restraining order. The story also contained paragraphs in which an attorney representing Richaun denied the allegations.
In one section of the story, Epley sharply criticized the Kings and the NBA for not disclosing more. “Given the sorry history of the NBA on domestic violence issues,” Epley wrote, “the way Holmes’ departure was handled by the Kings is unacceptable, but not surprising.”
The complaint portrays that sentence, and several others, as evidence of Epley’s bias and disregard for facts.
“Ms. Epley and, by extension, the Bee, publicly picked a side in this battle—that of Allexis Holmes—and sent the unmistakable (and unmistakably false) message to their readers that Allexis Holmes is a victim and Plaintiff is an abuser,” the complaint charges.
All told, the complaint alleges there were 21 defamatory statements contained in five Bee stories, four authored by Epley and one by the Bee’s editorial board. The stories were published between March and May 2022, during which time courts denied Allexis Holmes’ petition for a restraining order and awarded Richaun Holmes “sole legal custody” of his son.
The challenged statements include:
· “She described shocking incidents I will not repeat here because her personal shame is too great, and she requested we sto[p] recording.”
· “Allexis Holmes’ all too typical experience seeking protection from Kings’ Richaun Holmes.
· “I believe Allexis.”
· “Regardless of the outcome in the courts, victims of abuse likely see shades of their own experiences in Allexis Holmes’ struggle to protect her 6-year-old son and get a fresh start.”
· “The latest ruling granting Richaun full custody underscores how hard it is for domestic violence victims to find justice in the court system, and the desperate lengths they will go to get the outcome they seek.”
· “I still believe Allexis Holmes. I hope that someday her child will understand how much his mother loved him and tried to protect him.”
“The Bee defendants,” the complaint charges, “knew when they made the statements … that they were false, and/or acted with reckless disregard of the truth. At the time they published the Bee Articles, the Bee Defendants were on notice of substantial reasons to doubt Ms. Holmes’ veracity, motives, and bias …”
To prevail, Holmes will need to prove that claim, which will be harder because of his status as a pro athlete. Now in his eighth NBA season, Richaun has a sizable following on social media, and the custody dispute attracted headlines so he likely qualifies as a “public figure” under defamation law. That means he’ll face the heightened standard of “actual malice,” i.e. showing that, as he charges, the defendants published their statements with either knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard as to whether they were false.
Holmes must also show that his reputation has suffered. The complaint says he has weathered “damage to his personal brand, and goodwill in the community as a player for the Kings and in the NBA generally as a professional player.” Holmes’ “potential income” and “marketability” have allegedly been damaged as well, and he claims to have endured “emotional suffering and distress.” The complaint does not refer to Holmes losing any endorsement deals.
But the complaint takes an additional step, arguing that the statements about Holmes were defamatory per se, which would mean the statements were so obviously damaging to Holmes’ reputation that they relieve him of having to prove damages. Falsely accusing another person of committing criminal acts can qualify as defamatory per se.
Richaun and his lawyer can use his success in the legal proceedings that led to his receiving sole custody and offer additional sworn testimony to support his points.
In response to the lawsuit, the Bee last Friday quoted its attorney, Karl Olson, as saying the paper’s stories reflected “a combination of fair and true reporting of judicial proceedings and opinion.” Allexis Holmes is also quoted as saying “I know the truth, and so does he. I can’t wait for our first date in court.”
In the coming weeks, the defendants will formally answer the complaint. McClatchy and Epley will likely argue that they relied on claims raised in court documents and in assertions made during legal proceedings to report on a controversy involving a prominent person in Sacramento. They’ll probably insist they lawfully relied on the First Amendment to write about a dispute of public interest and drew from public records and other sources commonly employed by media companies.
McClatchy might also point out that the Bee featured news (not opinion) stories on the dispute, including the Mar. 30, 2022 story titled, “Sacramento judge denies request for restraining order against Kings center Richaun Holmes.” Authored by Bee news reporter Rosalio Ahumada, the 941-word story offered a highly detailed account and drew from statements made by both Richaun and Allexis, their attorneys and judges.
Epley’s specific role with the Bee is also important. Although the complaint at times calls Epley a “reporter,” the Bee identifies her as an “opinion writer.” The Bee also labels her authored works under the moniker “opinion” with the accompanying disclaimer “OPINION AND COMMENTARY. Editorials and other Opinion content offer perspectives on issues important to our community and are Independent from the work of our newsroom reporters.”
The distinction between a reported fact and a reported opinion is crucial under defamation law, with the former capable of being deemed defamatory and the latter not.
The Supreme Court underscored this distinction in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., a 1974 opinion. “However pernicious an opinion may be, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries, but on the competition of other ideas,” Justice Lewis Powell wrote, “ But there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.”
Epley concluding that she believed Allexis Holmes was arguably consistent with her profession as an opinion writer. It might even have been inappropriate for Epley to conceal her belief while opining about the controversy.
But while the fact-opinion distinction is often helpful in assessing defamation claims, it doesn’t immunize an op-ed from the scope of defamation law. An op-ed can contain asserted facts that are untrue and damaging to another’s reputation.
Depp’s case illustrated that point.
In 2018, Heard authored a Washington Post op-ed with the headline “I spoke up against sexual violence—and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change.” In opining that contemporary culture often directs “wrath for women who speak out” about domestic abuse, Heard alluded to—though not by name—Depp engaging in abusive acts.
Depp successfully argued that Heard knew the insinuations were false and, since they led to Depp being excluded from potential acting roles, caused him reputational harm. Depp was awarded $15 million in damages (later reduced to $10.35 million because of a Virginia law capping punitive damages). Heard, however, won one of three counterclaims and was awarded $2 million. Last December, Depp and Heard reached a settlement that foreclosed pending appeals.
Expect Richaun Holmes to argue, like Depp, that even though the Bee’s stories were labeled “opinion” and contained some opinion, they also featured factual-sounding but untrue assertions that were more in line with a reported story.
Should the case advance, both Richaun and Allexis will be subject to pretrial discovery. They’ll be asked to give sworn testimony about sensitive topics and share electronic evidence. They have already appeared before courts and testified regarding this controversy.
Holmes continues to play for the Kings, though first-year head coach Mike Brown has largely relegated Holmes—who averaged 14 points and eight rebounds per game in 2020-21—to the bench. Two years ago, the Kings signed Holmes to a four-year, $46.5 million contract.