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Judge Dismisses Libel Suit Involving ProPublica Article

The ruling cited the article’s heavy reliance on government reports that found numerous problems at nursing home company SentosaCare.

A judge in Brooklyn has thrown out a libel lawsuit against two reporters brought by the subjects of a 2015 ProPublica investigation that raised serious concerns about lax state oversight of nursing home ownership in New York.

Kings County Supreme Court Justice Paul Wooten held that the article was not libelous because it was a “fair and true report” of actions taken by state and federal agencies. New York law generally shields accurate accounts of official government actions from claims of libel (which refers to false statements that harm a person’s reputation). That’s to insulate government watchdog reporting from the chilling effect of litigation.

Wooten decided the case last month, but the opinion was published electronically on Monday.

The defendants in the suit, Jennifer Lehman and Allegra Abramo, reported the story for ProPublica on a freelance basis. ProPublica was not sued, but defended the reporters and bore the financial cost of the litigation. (This is the fourth time ProPublica has been sued for libel. All of the claims were dismissed before trial or dropped.)

The ProPublica article at the heart of the lawsuit was entitled “How N.Y.’s Biggest For-Profit Nursing Home Flourishes Despite a Record of Patient Harm.” It questioned the adequacy of the process by which New York regulators vet nursing home owners, focusing on how regulators repeatedly greenlighted new SentosaCare ownership stakes in nursing homes despite a history of fines and violations at homes affiliated with the company.

SentosaCare — along with two company principals and five affiliated nursing homes — filed the lawsuit in March 2016, after company officials became aware that Lehman and Abramo had begun work on a possible follow-up article.

Wooten’s ruling repeatedly cited the reporters’ reliance on state and federal government records that documented problems at nursing homes affiliated with SentosaCare, LLC, described in the article as New York state’s largest nursing home network. The company was the lead plaintiff in the suit. “The Court finds that no reasonable reader would understand the article to suggest more serious or widespread misconduct than is reflected in the underlying (and hyperlinked) official reports,” Wooten wrote.

Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, said, “We’re very pleased that the court recognized that our story on SentosaCare was based largely on official reports on issues arising at and with these facilities — and on the shortcomings in official oversight of them. This lawsuit should never have been brought, and we hope it will now quickly conclude.”

SentosaCare and the other plaintiffs plan to ask Wooten to reconsider his decision and to appeal his order, said their attorney, Howard Fensterman.

Update, Aug. 20, 2019: In an opinion dated Aug. 13, 2019, the judge in this matter reaffirmed his earlier dismissal of this case, and confirmed his conclusions that the lawsuit was barred both under the New York Civil Rights Law and the First Amendment to the federal Constitution.

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Portrait of Ian MacDougall

Ian MacDougall

Ian MacDougall is a former contributing reporter at ProPublica.

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