LOS ANGELES (CN) — Amazon chief Jeff Bezos beat a defamation lawsuit filed against him by his girlfriend’s brother, who is cited in multiple news stories as the source of leaked text messages sold to the National Enquirer.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Doyle threw out Michael Sanchez’s defamation claim against Bezos on Thursday, finding it flecked with hearsay.
The episode surrounding the case came to the public’s attention in February 2019, when Bezos acknowledged he was the target of a blackmail scheme over his affair with news reporter Lauren Sanchez.
In a blog post, Bezos claimed the National Enquirer’s publisher American Media attempted to extort him before publication of a story detailing the affair and included personal text messages from Lauren Sanchez’ phone.
Bezos said he and his head of security, Gavin De Becker, were told by American Media they shouldn’t try and figure how the tabloid received the leaked information. But multiple news stories later reported Michael Sanchez was the source of the leak and had received $200,000 for taking the information from his younger sister’s phone.
But Michael Sanchez later claimed Bezos and De Becker had been the source of baseless claims to journalists about nude photos that were obtained by the National Enquirer.
While the tabloid never published the nude images, Michael Sanchez sued Bezos in LA County Superior Court on claims of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He accused Bezos of saying he leaked nude photos of Bezos and his sister and shopped around a story about an affair that Bezos’ brother Mark was having.
In his complaint, Michael Sanchez said Bezos painted the leak as part of a conservative conspiracy with high-profile political operatives like Carter Page, Roger Stone and the Saudi Arabian government.
Bezos countered with an anti-SLAPP motion, calling Michael Sanchez’ lawsuit a form of extortion and a threat to speech protected under the First Amendment.
On Thursday, Doyle granted Bezos’ motion in a tentative ruling, finding Michael Sanchez’s claim was based in part on hearsay.
“Here, there is no admissible evidence that defendants published the subject statements,” Doyle wrote. “Plaintiff’s declaration merely discusses what he was told by reporters, which is inadmissible hearsay.”
Michael Sanchez argued the statements in his declaration are not hearsay “because they are not being used to prove the truth of the matter asserted,” Doyle wrote, adding Michael Sanchez in his declaration “could not distinguish between the use of hearsay to demonstrate that words were uttered, and the use of hearsay to identify the publisher. The former does not relate to the truth of the statements while the latter does.”
Doyle said Michael Sanchez’s reliance on what he was told by reporters amounts to hearsay “because they relate to out-of-court statements that are being used to prove the truth of the matter asserted — specifically that defendants published the subject statements.”
In court filings, Bezos argued Michael Sanchez’s lawsuit would punish speech and reporting about matters of public interest and any type of relationship between the press and sources.
Bezos and De Becker claim they were not the source of who leaked the information to the National Enquirer but the statements about the leaks were true.
Doyle said he looked at the statements and the asserted public interest and whether the statements contributed to the public debate.
“We are not concerned with the social utility of the speech at issue, or the degree to which it propelled the conversation in any particular direction; rather, we examine whether a defendant — through public or private speech or conduct — participated in, or furthered, the discourse that makes an issue one of public interest,” wrote Doyle.
“In any case, there is evidence the subject statements relate to an issue of public interest as there was widespread media coverage relating to Jeffrey Bezos’ extramarital affair and the source which leaked the affair to the media,” Doyle continued.
Statements about the leaks that “furthered the discourse” around who was the source of the photos are protected and meet the burden under anti-SLAPP, Doyle found.
During a court hearing, Sanchez’s attorney Thomas Warren from Warren Terzian said everything in a declaration could be considered hearsay, and just because his client’s declaration contained hearsay does not mean the lawsuit should be tossed.
“You cannot just make something up to survive an anti-SLAPP motion,” said Warren.
Doyle said at this point the law is calculated to look at the state of the case and does not permit a case to continue if it’s flawed.
“I’m satisfied we’re at where we should be,” Doyle said. “This didn’t come as a surprise to anybody.”
In a statement, Bezos’ attorney William Isaacson from Boies Schiller Flexner said, “My clients are pleased the judge has thrown out the baseless case filed by Michael Sanchez. When it comes to frivolous lawsuits seeking money or attention, the law is clear — and the law worked. Journalists will surely take the court’s ruling into account when considering Michael Sanchez as a source.”
Warren said he and his client “respectfully disagree” with Doyle’s ruling and “look forward to vindicating Mr. Sanchez’s claims on appeal.”