Housewives Bring The Drama to Court
Housewives Bring The Drama to Court
By, Phil Ingram
The Real Housewives, one of Bravo’s flagship brands, documents the lives of various divas around the country, and with the upcoming Vancouver spinoff – the world. The show has captured both the best and worst moments in the cast members’ lives, including private legal battles like Teresa Guidice’s bankruptcy and Shereé Whitfield’s child support drama with her ex Robert Whitfield. The series has also spawned legal controversies from the events of the show itself. Anyone who followed the latest season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills knows that Taylor Armstrong’s late husband Russell Armstrong threatened defamation litigation against Lisa Vanderpump, for allegedly selling stories about other cast members to tabloids. Russell also targeted Camille Grammer, for her on-camera revelations about Taylor and Russell’s violent marriage. The show is all about gossip and conflict – but when exactly does the drama cross the line from snarky fun to legal liability?
Danielle Staub, the embattled former cast member of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, almost found out! Staub’s ex-husband, Kevin Maher, sued her in a California State Court for intentional infliction of emotional distress based on Staub’s statements from the 2009 Reunion Special. Ex-hubby further alleged that Danielle inflicted emotional distress by threatening him while she was a cast member on the show. Specifically, Maher alleged that Danielle said that she “had fans and friends who would protect her” and that Kevin Maher was “going down.” Maher v. Staub (Cal. 2010).
In addition to the tort claim, the case raised interesting questions of jurisdiction and venue that are familiar to anyone learning the intricacies of civil procedure.
After removing the case to federal court, Danielle argued that California could not exercise jurisdiction over her. She also asserted that the proper venue for the lawsuit was New Jersey, but the court spent very little time to set this procedural issue aside. Substantively, she contended that her statements on the show could not meet the elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress as a matter of law. This case gives us an idea as to the scope of potential liability that confronts the stars of reality TV for creating “realness” that their audiences crave.
To exercise specific personal jurisdiction over a defendant a court must have the authority to adjudicate claims that arise out of a defendant’s contacts within the state in which the plaintiff filed suit. The courts use the famous minimum contacts test from International Shoe v. Washington, which consists of two factors: whether the defendant has “minimum contacts” with the state in which the plaintiff filed suit, and whether those contacts would make it reasonable and fair for the court to exercise jurisdiction. Of course, the test is more complex to apply than it seems (and there are many Supreme Court cases where the justices struggle to come to a consensus on how to apply this test). However, the central piece in the test is whether the defendant purposefully availed herself of contact with the state in which she was sued such that she could reasonably anticipate being called into court there. See Burger King Corp v. Rudzewicz, 471 U.S. 462 (1985).
The Court found it had jurisdiction over Danielle because she gave an interview to People magazine and participated in the Real Housewives Reunion Special knowing that she was making comments about the plaintiffs who resided in California. From making statements directed at individuals living in California, the Court determined that Danielle had “purposefully availed herself” of contact with California. Further, because People and The Real Housewivesare media products are distributed nationally, including in California, Danielle could have reasonably anticipated being called into court there to answer for any harm caused to the people she knew to be in California. This suggests, essentially, that any time any reality star makes a statement that could cause harm to people they know to be in another state, they could be brought to court to defend themselves against claims in that state, even if it entails flying across country to do so.
As a matter of tort law, the Court did not feel, however, that Danielle’s statements on the Reunion Special met the elements of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The basic elements of that claim in California are: (1) extreme and outrageous conduct by the defendant with the intention of causing, or reckless disregard for the probability of causing, emotional distress; (2) the plaintiff’s suffering severe or extreme emotional distress; and (3) a legal and factual causal link between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s distress. Maher, 2010 WL 325747, at *8 n.7.
Setting aside the issues of causation and distress, the Court found that saying someone was “going down” and that someone had “fans who would protect her” simply did not constitute sufficiently outrageous behavior. The threatening language was vague and could not reasonably be called “outrageous” or “extreme,” much less calculated to create, or recklessly indifferent to the creation of, emotional distress.
So what is the lesson to be taken from Maher v. Staub for the dramatic divas of reality TV? They may be dragged into court to answer for statements they make on the show – even if it takes a six-hour flight to commute to the forum state. They might also want to ask an attorney what things they can and cannot say on television about other people – even if they are basically being paid by a network to badmouth these exact people before a national audience.
What this doesn’t answer is whether the cast members might be able to file suits against one another for their behavior. After all, Danielle’s ex was not a cast member on the show. But if he had been, a court may have felt that he had “assumed the risk” of being harmed by the amped up dialogue and dramatic antics on the show by participating in a show known for such antics. Such a determination could bar a plaintiff either partly or totally (depending on local law) from recovering any damages no matter how outrageous or extreme the distressing behavior was. We just won’t know until another Bravolebrity drags one of her costars into court!
Hopefully, this gives some guidance to those of us who tune in to watch what happens, and to Camille Grammer the next time she gets the urge to badmouth Kelsey on air.