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Commentary: Barbara Walters dodges defamation suit

The 1st Circuit has declined to revive a defamation suit brought by a Massachusetts woman who claims her life unraveled after allegedly being caught in bed with Barbara Walters’ daughter at an exclusive Connecticut boarding school back in 1983.

“Although the allegations of the plaintiff’s complaint paint a poignant picture, we conclude —as did the district court — that the defendant is entitled to judgment on the pleadings,” wrote Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya in yesterday’s decision in Shay v. Walters.

First off, when is Walters finally going to retire? She indicated to President Obama in a recent interview that 2013 would be her last year. We can only hope. It will be a happy day for those of us who prefer less hand-wringing in their journalism whenever she decides to hang up her spurs.

Getting back to Walters’ most recent legal troubles, the plaintiff in the case is Nancy Shay of Braintree, Mass. In the early 1980s, Shay attended Wykeham Rise School for Girls in Washington, Conn. A classmate of Shay’s happened to be Jackie Guber, Walters’ adopted daughter.

One morning in 1983, a headmaster at the school allegedly caught Shay and Guber in bed together in Shay’s dorm room. Today, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a ripple on campus. But back in 1983, it was pretty inflammatory stuff.

Both young women were suspended, but according to Shay, that wasn’t the end of it. Shay claims that she had a telephone conversation with Walters after the incident in which Walters said, “Don’t say anything about this to anybody. You’ll ruin your name. Never mind, you’ll ruin my name and my daughter’s name.”

The wheels continued to turn and Shay was expelled from school later that year. Guber somehow managed to avoid expulsion.

Following her expulsion, Shay claims she went into a “deep depression.” According to Shay, she “generally lost her way” and her problems spiraled into substance abuse and emotional instability. As she describes it, her life became a “revolving door of rehabilitation centers, jails, and unhappiness.”

Shay was trying to put her past behind her when in 2008 Walters published her best-selling memoir, Audition. In the book, Walters mentions a friend of her daughter’s at Wykeham Rise named “Nancy” “whom the school kicked out midterm for bad behavior.” The book explains that “[Nancy] and Jackie had been found in the nearby town, high on God-knows-what” and that, after the incident, Walters “told the school that Jackie was never to be allowed to visit [Nancy] again.”

The book upset Shay and in 2011 she did what everyone who feels wronged by a celebrity with deep pockets does: she sued. Shay’s lawsuit alleged that Walters tortiously interfered with her contract with Wykeham Rise by inducing the school to expel her. Shay further claimed that the statements in Audition about her are defamatory. For good measure, Shay asserted a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress based on the statements in Walters’ memoir.

A Massachusetts federal court dismissed the lawsuit and Tuesday the 1st Circuit affirmed.

Of course, the problem with Shay’s tortious interference claim was that it was filed 27 years after her expulsion from Wykeham Rise. In concluding that this claim was barred by Massachusetts’ three-year statute of limitations, Circuit Judge Selya flatly rejected Shay’s argument that she could benefit from equitable tolling of the limitations period:

The plaintiff’s complaint acknowledges that shortly after her expulsion from Wykeham Rise, a faculty member told her that her rights had been violated and offered her the services of an attorney who specialized in civil rights. The plaintiff knew of her injury (that is, her expulsion), and the faculty member’s offer put the plaintiff squarely “on notice that someone may have caused her injury.” A reasonably diligent investigation would, at that point, have led to the discovery of information (to the extent that it exists) regarding the defendant’s involvement in the expulsion.

Further, the judge agreed with the lower court that Shay’s defamation and emotional distress claims failed as a matter of law, noting that few would recognize Shay as the “Nancy” in Audition.

Moreover, Selya found the statements were not actionable because Shay failed to make a plausible showing that Walters acted maliciously or negligently:

While the plaintiff’s complaint contains conclusory allegations about “ill-will” and “actual malice,” it contains no factual assertions that in any way lend plausibility to these conclusions. Similarly, the complaint does not contain any facts suggesting that the defendant acted negligently in publishing the challenged statements. In determining whether allegations cross the plausibility threshold, an inquiring court need not give weight to bare conclusions, unembellished by pertinent facts.

A version of this column originally appeared in Lawyers USA, sister publication to The Daily Record.

One comment

  1. I heard rumors that Nancy died. So, its good to see she is still around. I never knew Barbara Walters daughter was at the school. They just told us new ones that she had applied but her mother didn’t like it.