In “Real Housewives” Case, Release Form Doesn’t Bar Defamation Claims

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Oct 21, 2014

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A California court of appeals reversed a summary judgment in favor of a cast member of “Real Housewives of Orange County” in a defamation suit.

The alleged behind-the-scenes story sounds more interesting than the one that appeared on screen.

She Said, He Said…

GossipGretchen Rossi, then 30, was a cast member of the “Real Housewives” reality show. She said that she was merely friends with a car salesman named Jay Photoglou.

Photoglou, on the other hand, contends that he and Rossi dated exclusively for more than a year while Rossi was engaged to a man on the show – a wealthy 53-year-old who was dying of leukemia. According to Photoglou, Rossi’s on-screen relationship was staged.

According to the court of appeals decision,

The show invited viewers to decide whether Rossi was a saintly figure devoted to caring for her sick fiancé, or a party girl only interested in his money.

In 2009, the show broadcast a reunion episode. In it, another cast member confronted Rossi about her alleged relationship with Photoglou. Rossi denied the relationship on camera, and said that Photoglou lied because she spurned his sexual advances. Rossi also admitted sending an email accusing Photoglou of being a stalker.

Rossi sued Photoglou, claiming that he assaulted, stalked, threatened, and stole from her. The stolen items allegedly included “nude and compromising” photographs, including one showing her driving while topless. Rossi also claimed that Photoglou interfered with her product endorsement deals and appearance contracts by releasing the photos on the Internet.

Photoglou sued Rossi in return, saying that she defamed him by calling him a thief and a liar and falsely accusing him of assaulting and threatening her.

The two cases were consolidated.

The Jury’s Verdict

A jury awarded Rossi $500,000 in compensatory damages and $23,250 in punitive damages against Photoglou.

Photoglou appealed.

The court of appeal found that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to Rossi on some of Photoglou’s libel, slander, and “false light” claims.

The Release Form

An episode of the show took place at Rossi’s parents’ vacation home. Because Photoglou was on the set, the production company asked him to sign an “Appearance Release” form.

This release form exonerated the producers and their employees

from any and all claims, demands, controversies, causes of action, damages, rights, liabilities and obligations whatsoever (including, without limitation, any defamation claim and/or claim that such use invades any right of privacy and/or publicity) (`Claims’), arising directly or indirectly out of or in connection with the Program and/or the use of my likeness.

Before trial, Rossi sought to have Photoglou’s claims against her dismissed because of this release, and the trial court agreed.

The court of appeals held that this was in error for statements Rossi made during the reunion episode, because the release could not exempt Rossi from intentional defamation.

However, the court of appeals also found that alternative grounds supported the jury’s verdict in Rossi’s favor based on statements she made after the reunion episode. Among other things, said the court, “Substantial evidence supports Rossi’s defense that her statements about Photoglou were true.”

What if you’re asked to sign a release form?

Most people won’t find themselves in situations as melodramatic as the “Real Housewives” case. However, it’s not uncommon for people to be asked to sign release forms.

For example, parents are often asked to sign release forms that allow their children to be photographed for publicity purposes by schools, sports teams, etc.

Many release forms are extremely broad, allowing the use of a name and/or image in a wide variety of media, throughout the universe, and forever.

However, as in the “Real Housewives” case and as discussed in this blog, a release form doesn’t necessarily protect a company from all claims.

If you’ve been asked to sign a release form, or if you have a business that uses release forms, you may want to consult an attorney who deals with privacy and publicity law to make sure that you’re protected.

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