Real Housewives of New Jersey: Your Legal Guide to Stripper-Gate
On Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live last night, guest diva Wendy Williams suggested that if someone were accusing her of being a stripper on national television, she would prove it wasn’t true then get a lawyer. Of course, Wendy was referring to the infamous double- and triple-layered accusation flying around the cast members of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Melissa Gorga, who joined the cast last season, is married to original cast member Teresa Giudice’s brother, Joe. Their family feud has played out on television with many twists and turns, but one particularly juicy allegation has people on all sides up in arms: Was Melissa a stripper—and has Teresa been telling people that she was?
Falsely accusing someone of having been a stripper, as Wendy clearly understood, could definitely have legal implications. But the extent of the legal implications lies in the common law doctrine of defamation. While many people are aware of defamation—and its two types, libel and slander—, few understand the specifics of how the doctrine operates. Since the situation on Real Housewives presents it all so well, it seems like a great case to show what exactly defamation is and what Melissa would have to show to get Teresa to pay up for allegedly spreading these rumors about her.
Defamation is a claim in tort, which is the area of law the covers private harms that individuals or groups commit against one another. Torts are mostly claims under state law, and as such the law will vary depending on where a person engages in harmful conduct. Most torts protect people against physical harm (by allowing them to recover money from those who injure them), but some preserve other interests like feeling secure, being free to leave a place when you want to, or having your reputation go unsullied. Defamation protects this last interest by allowing victims of some rumors to collect damages from the people spreading stories about them.
Let’s get the facts straight: No one knows if Melissa really was or was not a stripper. If you’ve been following the drama this season, you know that it’s not even clear if Teresa has actually ever said Melissa was a stripper (though other people who appeared on the show this season did). While the actualities of Melissa’s work history and Teresa’s involvement in spreading the rumors are very material to a determination of legal liability for defamation, we’ll assume the predominating storyline from the show is true: Melissa was not a stripper, and Teresa told others she was with hope it would corroborate her broader claim that Melissa is a gold-digger.
So, did Teresa defame Melissa?
In the State of New Jersey, defamation is based on a statement which is all three of the following:
- communicated to a third person; and
- “tends to lower the subject’s reputation in the estimation of the community, or to deter third persons from associating with him.”
W.J.A. v. D.A., 210 N.J. 229, 238 (N.J. 2012).
Defamation claims for private figures must satisfy a negligence standard, meaning the damaged party must show that the person who made the false statement either “knew” or “should have known” that the statement would cause undue harm to the subject since it was false. This standard means that even if someone did not make the statements with the intention to do harm, because he did not know whether they were true or not, he would be legally liable. This is the law telling him that he should have found out if his potentially damaging statements were true and not said anything if they were false. By extension, if he said it with the intention to do harm, because he knew the statements to be hurtful and false, he would be legally liable.
In this scenario, Melissa and Teresa are “private” figures discussing “private” matters, even though they are doing it very much in public. Therefore, Teresa’s intentional attempts at making others think Melissa was a stripper in order to hurt Melissa’s reputation clearly meet the standard to make Teresa legally liable for what she said so long as it met the three elements laid out above.
We’ve already assumed for these purposes that Melissa was not a stripper; so, the falsity requirement is satisfied. We’ve also assumed that Teresa communicated this falsity to third parties: If not, the rumor would probably never have surfaced on the show. It also seems clear that the accusation that Melissa used to have a taboo job like dancing in the nude for money tends to lower her reputation in the estimation of the community or deters others from associating with her. After all, it doesn’t take much to imagine that in a small but wealthy community with a strong Italian Catholic influence that such information about a mother of three would tend to do nothing but these types of harms to her reputation.
While the case seems open-and-shut on its face, there is another issue: damages. Each tort is thought to take away something from the person injured—health, money, reputation, a feeling of security, etc. Thus, a person can only be liable for a tort if the court can recognize some quantity taken away by the tort that can be restored to the person harmed. This idea is what we call damages – and they usually come in the form of money. So, once a plaintiff has established a case of defamation, he may also need to prove that the statements made by the defendant had a quantifiable harm to his reputation which can be translated into damages. This depends entirely on the type of statement that was made and how it was made. W.J.A v. D.A., 210 N.J. at 239-40.
Defamatory statements made in print are considered libel and for a claim of libel damages are presumed. By contrast, in spoken defamation, or slander, a plaintiff can usually only recover damages if he can show actual harm. In our case, then, Melissa would need to establish that the slanderous statements really did cause other people not to associate with her or hold her in less esteem.
However, some slander is of such a character that a court will be willing to presume damages even if actual harm has not been shown. Just as with libel, courts are of the opinion that some forms of slander are so scandalous that one can presume harm will flow from them. These narrow cases of slander are known as slander per se. In New Jersey, a statement is slander per se which imputes any of the following to another person:
- a criminal offense;
- a loathsome disease;
- conduct, characteristics, or a condition that is incompatible with a person’s business, trade, or office; or
- serious sexual misconduct.
Biondi v. Nassimos, 300 N.J. Super. 148, 154 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1997).
Teresa’s statement about Melissa was made orally, not in print, so Melissa would not have the benefit of presumed damages. So, if Melissa has no proof that Teresa’s slanderous statements did her any actual harm, can she still recover? It would all depend on whether the court found that being accused of being a stripper is an imputation of serious sexual misconduct.
As is reflected in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 574, slander per se historically was used to protect women (and only women) from the untrue accusation that they had been unchaste. Comment b on this section of the Restatement gives examples such as acts of adultery or fornication, of bearing illegitimate children, or “general charges of unchaste conduct.” However, it does not usually cover bare immodesty.
Is falsely claiming someone used to be a stripper slander per se? The law itself is unclear on this particular point. However, it seems from common experience that strippers (along with other people who work in adult entertainment) are at least reputed to be unchaste and not merely immodest. More to the point, the reasons for which Teresa would be making this accusation against Melissa—to show she is the type of woman who uses sex in socially unacceptable ways for economic gain as a way to suggest she married Teresa’s brother for his money—demonstrate that they go to the substance of Melissa’s chastity and not just her modesty. It is likely, therefore, that spreading a false rumor that Melissa was a stripper would be slander per se.
As Wendy suggested, if it were so clear that Teresa were spreading this rumor and it were false, Melissa probably could have whipped up a cease and desist letter or a court action by now that would have quashed the whole thing. (Maybe she has done!) Nonetheless, this is one of those great teachable moments in television where the catty drama we crave as viewers could actually be redressable in a court of law.