«UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK _ ASHLEY TERRILL, an individual, CASE NO. Plaintiff, COMPLAINT v. GAWKER MEDIA, LLC, a ...»
Case 1:16-cv-00411-NRB Document 1 Filed 01/19/16 Page 1 of 22
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
ASHLEY TERRILL, an individual, CASE NO.
GAWKER MEDIA, LLC, a Delaware limited
liability company; SAM BIDDLE, an
individual, JOHN COOK, an individual, and
DOES 1-20, Defendants.
Ashley Terrill, by and through her undersigned attorneys, sues defendants Gawker Media, LLC, Sam Biddle, John Cook, and DOES 1-20 (collectively, “Defendants”), and respectfully makes the following allegations.
SUMMARY OF THE CASE
1. Plaintiff is a resident of the City of West Palm Beach, County of Palm Beach, State of Florida.
2. Upon information and belief, Gawker Media, LLC (“Gawker”) is a Delaware limited liability company with its principal place of business located in New York City, New York.
3. Upon information and belief, defendant Sam Biddle (“Biddle”) is an individual, domiciled in the State of New York. At all relevant times, Biddle was, and is, a Senior Writer at Gawker.
4. Upon information and belief, defendant John Cook (“Cook”) is an individual, domiciled in the State of New York. At all relevant times, Cook was, and is, Executive Editor at Gawker.
5. Upon information and belief, Defendants, and each of them, were and are the agents, licensees, employees, partners, joint-venturers, co-conspirators, owners, principals, and employers of the remaining Defendants and each of them are, and at all times mentioned herein were, acting within the course and scope of that agency, license, partnership, employment, Case 1:16-cv-00411-NRB Document 1 Filed 01/19/16 Page 3 of 22 conspiracy, ownership, or joint venture. Upon further information and belief, the acts and conduct herein alleged of each of the Defendants were known to, authorized by, and/or ratified by the other Defendants, and each of them.
6. This Court has personal jurisdiction over Defendants because they have minimum contacts with the State of New York, and are domiciliaries of the State of New York.
7. The Court has subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) because there is complete diversity of the parties to this action and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.
8. Venue is proper in this district pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section 1391(b), in that each of the defendants reside here and a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to the claim occurred here.
9. In or about October of 2013, Terrill pitched two stories to ELLE magazine about the co-founders of the billion-dollar technology company and dating app “Tinder.” In connection with her research for those stories, Terrill interviewed with Tinder’s CEO, Sean Rad (“Rad”) and Vice President of Marketing, Whitney Wolfe (“Wolfe”), among others.
10. On or about October 21, 2013, Terrill’s interview with Wolfe was posted on Elle.com.
12. Two months later, on June 30, 2014, Wolfe filed a lawsuit against Tinder, Tinder’s parent company Match.com and their parent company, IAC, Inc. The lawsuit was premised on Case 1:16-cv-00411-NRB Document 1 Filed 01/19/16 Page 4 of 22 allegations of sexual harassment and sexual discrimination against Wolfe by Rad, and Tinder’s Chief Marketing Officer, Justin Mateen (“Mateen”). The lawsuit made national news, and thousands of articles were written about it.
13. That same day, Terrill received a phone message from an attorney representing Wolfe. The attorney informed Terrill of Wolfe’s lawsuit against Tinder and offered to send information about, or speak to her, about the case.
14. Terrill read Wolfe’s complaint, and certain statements in it seemed inconsistent with Terrill’s recollection of the events as described to her by those with first hand knowledge.
Terrill then went back to her research, including her recorded interview of Wolfe and others.
Terrill found that there were potentially inconsistences between Wolfe’s allegations in the lawsuit and Terrill’s past research, specifically Wolfe’s previous statements to Terrill.
15. In light of the inconsistencies, Terrill shifted the focus of her research, and started researching the founding of Tinder. Terrill reviewed numerous materials, reached out to more than thirty individuals and conducted on-the-record interviews with at least fourteen sources close to the subjects of this new story. Terrill sought to fully and fairly research matters which she believed had been only superficially covered by numerous news outlets who had not investigated the underlying facts.
16. Throughout the course of her research, Terrill sought only to ascertain the truth regarding Tinder’s history as well as the allegations in Wolfe’s lawsuit.
17. After leaving Tinder, Wolfe joined two other ex-Tinder employees, Sarah Mick (“Mick”) and Christopher Gulczynski (“Gulczynski”) to launch a competitor company called “Bumble.” The event was major business news, and covered in thousands of news articles.
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18. On or about August 18, 2015, Terrill received a voicemail message from Bumble’s Vice President of Communications, Jennifer Stith (“Stith”), who stated that she wished to “confirm” with Terrill that she was working on a piece about Whitney Wolfe “before taking any next steps.”
19. Hours later, Terrill received a voicemail message from the attorney representing Wolfe in her lawsuit. Wolfe’s attorney demanded that Terrill make contact with him before she wrote anything “that could potentially subject [Terrill] or others to legal liability.” The obvious implication of the statement was that if Terrill proceeded to research and/or write about the underlying facts regarding Wolfe, including the potential inconsistencies between Wolfe’s past statements and other events from the past, and Wolfe’s allegations in her lawsuit against her fellow co-founders at Tinder, then Terrill could expect a lawsuit to follow.
20. Almost immediately following these two phone calls, Terrill’s personal computer and smart phone started acting erratically and showing signs of potentially having been hacked.
Terrill also observed unusual activity in her personal surroundings.
21. Terrill reached out to a friend of hers for help with this situation and the friend referred her to a producer at Gawker. Hoping the producer might have some insight or advice, Terrill explained the two phone calls to the producer and described the unusual activity with both her personal computer and smart phone. Terrill expressed concern about potentially being hacked and intimidated. The producer at Gawker told Terrill that Gawker Executive Editor John Cook and his team had the resources to research the unsettling activity that Terrill was experiencing.
22. Gawker Senior Writer Sam Biddle then contacted Terrill and told Terrill that she Case 1:16-cv-00411-NRB Document 1 Filed 01/19/16 Page 6 of 22 could trust him. Terrill expressed to Biddle that she was looking for help with her situation and unsure of what to do. She asked Biddle to maintain the confidentiality of the information that she was to share with him, and provide her with whatever advice or assistance that he could.
Biddle agreed; assured Terrill that her communications to Gawker would be treated confidentially; agreed that Gawker would not misappropriate her story; asked her to furnish supporting materials; and informed Terrill that he intended to provide her with advice and assistance in her situation.
23. Apparently, all such statements, representations and agreements by Defendants to Terrill were knowingly false at the time they were made. Terrill was not aware of the falsity of the statements, representations and agreements, and reasonably relied upon the truth of those statements, representations and agreements to her detriment. Defendants in fact had no interest, desire or intent to assist Terrill. Nor did Defendants have any interest in seeking the truth underlying the story of the co-founders of Tinder or any discrepancies in Wolfe’s allegations in her complaint against her fellow co-founders.
24. Rather, Defendants had only one interest: to write their own scathing article about Terrill in a way that was knowingly false, libelous of Terrill, and would foreseeably harm, if not destroy, her personal and professional reputation.
25. The motivation for Biddle’s betrayal, in addition to economic gain, appeared to be Biddle’s ongoing personal relationship with Wolfe and Gulczynski, which he actively concealed from Terrill. In fact, on information and belief, Biddle was regularly communicating with Wolfe and Gulczynski throughout the time that Terrill was confiding in Biddle. Biddle concealed his relationship with Wolfe and Gulczynski from Terrill because Biddle knew that he could not Case 1:16-cv-00411-NRB Document 1 Filed 01/19/16 Page 7 of 22 successfully induce Terrill to disclose her confidential research if she knew about the relationship with Wolfe and Gulczynski.
26. On or about November 23, 2015, Defendants’ published on Gawker’s flagship website Gawker.com, a lengthy story with the headline “Tinder Confidential: The Hookup App's Founders Can't Swipe Away the Past” (the “Gawker Story”), a true and correct copy of which is attached hereto as Exhibit A. The Story is replete with numerous false statements of fact, of and concerning Terrill, which Defendants knew to be false at the time the Story was written and published.
27. The false statements in the Gawker Story include, among others:
Case 1:16-cv-00411-NRB Document 1 Filed 01/19/16 Page 8 of 22 d. “Terrill’s claims range from dubious to absurd, but her exhaustive investigation into Wolfe’s background has pumped the submerged bile
e. “Terrill’s research is an anomaly in the saga of Wolfe vs Tinder, a rare attempt to discredit rather than lionize the plaintiff.” f. “…Ashley Terrill was compiling evidence against her for some sort of intricate character assassination.” g. “…[Wolfe[ should expect a ‘takedown story’ coming soon from Terrill.” h. “…[I]t immediately looked like a covert attempt to smear her (and her company) without breaking their mutual non-defamation agreement.” i. “…Terrill’s takedown [story] could appear as a magazine story, a book, or possibly even a film, all aimed at portraying [Wolfe] as the villain in the
j. “Terrill … claimed she’d found vast inconsistencies that not only undermined the legal case, but Wolfe’s entire character. It was deeply personal.” k. “Terrill’s conclusion was that Wolfe is [a businesswoman who ruthlessly exploited every opportunity for her gain (even if unethically)].” l. “Terrill was in a state of absolute terror and perpetual anxiety—it hung on her voice as she mentioned... the friends she could no longer contact, and the
28. The forgoing false statements of fact were made by defendants with the intention and knowledge that they were false and were likely to harm Terrill’s personal and professional reputation. The false and libelous statements in the Gawker Story had the foreseeable effect of severely harming Terrill’s personal and professional reputation.
29. Gawker is a company that routinely engages in wrongful conduct, and specifically, writes and publishes false and defamatory statements about people, invades people’s privacy and other rights, and publishes content that is irresponsible and that no other legitimate publication will publish.
30. By way of example, Gawker is currently defending a lawsuit by Hulk Hogan for publishing an illegal, secret recording showing him naked and having consensual sexual relations in a private bedroom.
31. Gawker has been sued, and is currently defending the action in New York State Court, by the Daily Mail newspaper for defamation arising from its publication of numerous false statements.
32. Gawker has been sued, and is currently defending the action in federal court, by an individual named Charles Johnson, for writing and publishing false and unsubstantiated rumors that Mr. Johnson had been involved in misconduct and criminal activity.
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