Court Dismisses Jessica Corey’s Defamation Claim Against NYC Mayor Adams

In a recent decision, Corey v. City of New York, No. 151459/2023, 2023 WL 8478872 (N.Y. Sup Ct, New York County Dec. 07, 2023), the court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claim of defamation against the New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

This case arose from events following an incident in which a male subway passenger verbally accosted and spat on an Asian American woman (Ms. Lee). Following that incident, during a television interview, defendant Adams was asked about NYC’s handling of hate crimes against Asian-Americans, and Ms. Lee’s assertion that plaintiff – who had been appointed as Commanding Officer of the NYPD’s Hate Crime Unit – was unsympathetic to Ms. Lee during a phone call.

In response, Adams stated that this was the first time he had been informed of any concerns about plaintiff’s response, and added:

I don’t want a leader in that area that starts off with saying why something is not a possible hate crime. It would be troubling to me to see if someone is not clear on the direction I want my hate crime unit to perform. I don’t know what the criteria[] were under other administrations, but we have a new day, and we’re going to have a new way.

Plaintiff asserts that, as a result of this statement, she was removed as Commanding Officer of the Hate Crime Unit and reassigned, and that she has suffered extreme embarrassment, mental anguish, and reputational damage.

The court explained its rationale for dismissing plaintiff’s claim as follows:

The elements of defamation: “(1) the publishing of a false statement to a third party; (2) without authorization or privilege; (3) which constitutes fault, judged at a minimum negligence standard; (4) that causes special harm or amounts to defamation per se” (Metrosearch Recoveries, LLC v City of New York, 2017 NY Slip Op 32072[U], 5-6 [Sup Ct, New York County 2017] [internal citations omitted], affd as mod, 169 AD3d 512 [1st Dept 2019]).
In this case, Adams’ statements at issue here are protected by the absolute privilege. This privilege is “reserved for communications made by individuals participating in a public function, such as executive, legislative, judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings” and “immunizes a communicant from liability in a defamation action” for all statements made while acting in their official capacity in order to “ensure that such persons’ own personal interests–especially fear of a civil action, whether successful or otherwise–do not have an adverse impact upon the discharge of their public function” (Rosenberg v MetLife, Inc., 8 NY3d 359, 365 [2007] [internal citations and quotations omitted]).

Adams’ remarks were a clear exercise of his authority as Mayor of New York City, insofar as he was addressing questions about how the New York City Police Department, an agency under his control, responds to bias complaints (See Metrosearch Recoveries, LLC v City of New York, 169 AD3d 512 [1st Dept 2019] [Comptroller’s press conference addressing plaintiff’s communications with public that falsely invoked authority of Comptroller’s office was “sufficiently related to the performance of [Comptroller’s] duties that the statements made therein were absolutely privileged”]). Accordingly, the Mayor’s statements are protected by absolute privilege (See id.).

Even if this were not the case, Adams’ statement was a non-actionable expression of pure opinion. The New York State Court of Appeals has set forth a four-factor analysis to determine whether a statement falls within this category: “(1) an assessment of whether the specific language in issue has a precise meaning which is readily understood or whether it is indefinite and ambiguous; (2) a determination of whether the statement is capable of being objectively characterized as true or false; (3) an examination of the full context of the communication in which the statement appears; and (4) a consideration of the broader social context or setting surrounding the communication including the existence of any applicable customs or conventions which might signal to readers or listeners that what is being read or heard is likely to be opinion, not fact” (Steinhilber v Alphonse, 68 NY2d 283, 292 [1986]).
This analysis supports the conclusion that the statement in question was an expression of pure opinion: Adams made a general statement of policy (i.e., that he is categorically opposed to minimizing or failing to respond to acts of discrimination) and, to the extent he addressed allegations concerning plaintiff’s handling of the bias investigation, his response was couched as a hypothetical statement or, at most, a conditional statement. Accordingly, it cannot be characterized as true or false. Moreover, examining the interview in the broader context in which it was conducted further supports the conclusion that this was a general statement about the Mayor’s policy toward bias investigations rather than an informed discussion of any specific investigation, as Adams acknowledged that he was not aware of the facts underlying Ms. Lee’s allegations as to the investigation but responding to the version of events as recounted by the reporter conducting the interview.

Based on this, the court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss.

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