Fox Litigation Team Wins Jury Award in Defamation Suit Brought by Victim of Mistaken IdentityDecember 20, 2018 – Press Releases
Fox Rothschild LLP litigators won a defamation verdict totaling $210,000 – including $75,000 in punitive damages – for a celebrated Minneapolis choreographer who was targeted in a series of emailed “Open Letters” and other communications attacking her reputation with false accusations.
The case, April Sellers v. Kevin Powell and Jinah Parker, was one of recklessly mistaken identity. The Defendants launched a campaign against Sellers believing she had sent communications written by a completely unrelated person named April Sellers who lives in another state. Despite receiving immediate and repeated communications conveying that they were falsely accusing the wrong person, the Defendants chose never to retract their false allegations or apologize for their actions.
After a five-day trial that concluded on December 18, 2018, a Hennepin County District Court jury awarded Sellers $135,000 in damages for harm to her reputation and career, mental distress and humiliation, along with $75,000 in punitive damages against Defendant Kevin Powell, for a total award of $210,000.
Defendant Kevin Powell is an author, political activist and two-time candidate for Congress in New York. He was a senior writer for Vibe Magazine where he was a frequent interviewer of now-deceased rap star Tupac Shakur and is best known as a cast member on the first season of The Real World on MTV.
Powell and his wife, Jinah (JEN-uh) Parker, are co-producers of a dance production in New York addressing issues surrounding sexual violence against women. On October 20, 2017, Jinah Parker received an email and Facebook comment from a woman named “April Sellers” who asserted that it was hypocritical for Powell to be involved in that production given his own admitted history of violence against women.
In response, Powell and Parker launched a campaign to retaliate against Sellers. But, in doing so, they falsely accused an innocent person who had no connection to the original negative feedback or to the person who provided it, aside from similarly being named “April Sellers.”
Declaring that her messages had been “hateful, racist, sexist, mean-spirited, disrespectful, and so much more,” Powell and Parker wrote a 1,200-word “Open Letter” that falsely accused Sellers of concealing her identity in order to send messages interfering with their marriage. They disseminated “Open Letter” emails to dozens of journalists, artists and arts organization personnel, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, the Walker Arts Center and the Minnesota State Arts Board, declaring that they were “sharing this response widely, across various communities in Minnesota and nationally because we feel people like you are dangerous to yourself and to others…”
In fact, the original email and Facebook post were written by an Ohio resident who did not know or have any connection to Sellers in Minneapolis. Powell and Parker’s “investigation” into who had authored the original messages was woefully inadequate, despite Powell’s career in journalism, and failed to identify the correct sender of the original messages.
“More than a year after being falsely accused, I have now publicly cleared my name,” said the Plaintiff, April Sellers. “This has been a long and difficult journey, made harder by Defendants who seemed unwilling to hear me speak the truth and who seemed unwilling or unable to fully disclose the full extent of how widely they had distributed false accusations against me. Today I regain some control of my own reputation and my own identity. I will be using all aspects of this experience to make art.”
The Fox Rothschild LLP team, led by partner Aaron Mills Scott and including associate Peter Stiteler was satisfied with the result. “In this case, we succeeded in establishing that art has value and that the reputation of an artist has value,” said Scott. “We are proud to have had the chance to represent a client as talented and powerful as April Sellers as she worked to clear her name.”