A federal judge in the Northern District of Georgia has dismissed counterclaims by blogger Latasha Kebe against rapper Cardi B (a/k/a Belcalis Almánzar), in a defamation action filed by Cardi B against Kebe. In a decision full of lessons for practitioners who represent public figures, US District Judge William M. Ray II also rejected Cardi B’s request for summary judgment on her pending defamation claims, finding that Cardi B’s claims would be best decided by a jury.
Cardi B filed suit against Kebe in March 2019 after Kebe posted at least 38 videos referencing the rapper on her YouTube channel, “unWinewithTashaK,” which has approximately 1 million followers and which Kebe refers to as a “drama-based blog.” As the recent decision details, Cardi B claims that Kebe defamed her when she published repeated statements that Cardi B was a sex worker, that she had several sexually transmitted infections, that she used cocaine, and that she had committed adultery, among other statements. Cardi B also claims that Kebe defamed her by publishing a video interview with Starmarie Jones, wherein Jones claimed that Cardi B “got herpes” and has exchanged “sex for money.”
As a result, Cardi B seeks punitive damages and attorney fees for what she claims amounted to slander, libel, portrayal in a false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Cardi B alleges that Kebe’s statements are false, and that Kebe knew the “probable falsity” of these statements at the time she published them.
Kebe leveraged counterclaims of assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Cardi B, both of which were dismissed by the court. According to the court’s decision, Kebe alleged that she received death threats on her social media account and cell phone “from people directed to do so by Plaintiff.” As the court summarized, Kebe claimed that she contacted the FBI about the alleged threats, that she feared for her safety, and that she experienced “stress, anxiety, and depression” during a high-risk pregnancy, and that she was “forced to relocate her family.”
While the court found that Kebe may indeed have experienced such distress, it held that Kebe had not established any causal link between the alleged harm and Cardi B herself. Thus, given that Kebe had not provided evidence that Cardi B herself threatened Kebe, made her believe she would harm her, or otherwise caused her distress, the court rejected both of Kebe’s counterclaims.
The court also declined to grant Cardi B’s motion for summary judgment on her underlying claims, refusing to decide her defamation per se and IIED claims as a matter of law. As the decision detailed, Georgia defines defamation as: “(1) a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff; (2) an unprivileged communication to a third party; (3) fault by the defendant amounting to at least negligence; and (4) special harm or the actionability of the statement irrespective of the special harm.” The court clarified that there were genuine and triable issues of fact as to whether the statements at issue met Georgia’s standard for defamation, particularly with regard to the questions of whether the statements were in fact “false and defamatory” and whether there was “fault by the defendant amounting at least to negligence.”
On the falsity inquiry, the court acknowledged that Kebe has “represented to the Court through video evidence that Plaintiff has at least admitted to” some of the defamatory conduct, including sex work and illicit drug use, and that Kebe proffered “a photo that Plaintiff posted online in which Plaintiff had visible cold sores.” The court concluded that, assuming admissibility of such evidence, a reasonable jury could believe that the alleged defamatory statements are true.
Regarding Georgia’s fault-based element, the court found that Cardi B is a public figure for purposes of the defamation claims. Therefore, she must prove that Kebe acted with actual malice – that she either made the statements with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of whether they were false. The court held that on the question of malice, there were genuine issues of material fact, such as whether Star Jones was a “reliable source” for Kebe’s statements, on which a reasonable jury could disagree.
The court also rejected Cardi B’s summary judgment motion regarding her claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, finding that a reasonable jury could disagree on whether Kebe’s statements could be considered “extreme and outrageous conduct” under Georgia’s statute. Further, the court pointed out that Georgia’s statute for IIED has four elements: “(1) intentional or reckless conduct (2) which is extreme and outrageous and (3) caused the emotional distress (4) which was severe.” The court found it significant that, given that Cardi B only moved for summary judgment on the first two elements, that the IIED issue would best be decided in full by a jury.
This decision illustrates that at least some courts are reluctant to make determinations as a matter of law in defamation cases. It further illustrates that courts may be unwilling to make determinations in favor of a plaintiff at the summary judgment stage as to whether a defendant had knowledge of falsity, or reckless disregard thereof, particularly when relying upon third party source material. The court also expressed an unwillingness to decide as a matter of law whether Kebe’s statements constitute extreme and outrageous conduct, leaving such a determination for the jury.
The matter is scheduled for trial on September 10, 2021.
Almánzar v. Kebe et al., case number 1:19-cv-01301, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.