Cayuga Nation and Clint Halftown v. Showtime Networks, et al., No. 157902/2019 (N.Y. Sup. Ct.). Oral argument on motion to dismiss scheduled for December 23, 2019.
“Billions” is a CBS/Showtime drama series that explores the manners and mores of titans of the New York financial and legal realm. A fatherless self-made billionaire hedge fund owner squares off against a politically powerful adult child of privilege who cannot escape the influence of his ruthless father.
The Cayuga Nation and its leader object to Billions’ portrayal of them, asserting that the show has intimated the nation and its leader engaged in improper business conduct. Showtime and its creators demur, asserting that this fictional account bears only a nominal similarity to the plaintiffs, that no viewer would mistake the drama for fact, that the nation as sovereign cannot maintain an action in defamation, and that any claim of misappropriation of Halftown’s likeness must fail, as no likeness has been appropriated and no image has been used in trade or advertising.
Defendants argue that fiction must be accorded strong First Amendment protection, and that the high standard applicable to defamation in fiction cases requires that any representation be unmistakable, indistinguishable from a real person, and involve defamatory statements concerning the target of the defamation.
None of these standards can be met, defendants submit, where the female tribal leader acting in the show could not be mistaken for the real leader. Moreover, the portrayal of the tribe and its leaders was not defamatory but rather portrayed the nation and its leader as politically astute. There was no depiction or suggestion that either the nation or the its leader engaged in any criminal activity, precluding success in claiming defamation per se.
Plaintiffs insist that conclusory arguments without factual support do not support dismissal. The nation is not without capacity to defend its good name and the idea that oblique representations cannot be actionable distorts the law.
Case Law in Support of Dismissal