A New York state appeals court has handed freelance journalist William D. Cohan a legal victory, affirming the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit filed against him by the subject of an article published by ProPublica. Ruling with unusual dispatch — the court issued its opinion on Oct. 31, only three weeks after oral arguments — it declared that the article “flatly contradicts the existence of actual malice,” the standard of proof that a public figure must meet to win a libel suit. “The plaintiff failed to show,” the opinion stated, “that his claims had a substantial basis in law.”
The plaintiff, Jide Zeitlin, sued Cohan in 2021, claiming that he was defamed by the article, “The Bizarre Fall of the CEO of Coach and Kate Spade’s Parent Company.” The article examined Zeitlin’s rise from being the son of a Nigerian maid to a Goldman Sachs partner and Fortune 500 CEO, and then his downfall, as allegations of an extramarital affair with a woman he photographed contributed to his resignation from Tapestry, the corporation that owns Coach and other brands.
In its four-page opinion, the appeals court credited the fact that Cohan cited Zeitlin’s denials in the article, provided links to original documents so that readers could judge for themselves and relied on a “host of other sources whose reliability plaintiff does not challenge.” As the opinion put it, “plaintiff’s allegations of actual malice rest largely on his own statements.”
“We are extremely gratified by this victory,” said Jeremy Kutner, ProPublica’s general counsel. “The court immediately recognized that the article was balanced and deeply reported, rejecting Zeitlin’s claims just three weeks after it heard the case.”
ProPublica was represented by Jay Ward Brown and Emmy Parsons of Ballard Spahr LLP.