Attorney Brian Wassom had been speaking for less than four minutes when Michigan Appeals Court Judge Stephen Borrello made his thoughts clear.
“Your case can’t get much better than it already is,” Borrello said. “I don’t speak for my two colleagues – but if you want to continue on, be my guest. But we’ve read all of this. I don’t see even a glimmer of a defamation case here.”
A partner and First Amendment expert in the firm of Warner Norcross + Judd, Wassom has been defending ELi and its founder and publisher Alice Dreger against a defamation lawsuit filed by now-incarcerated real estate developer Scott Chappelle.
Wassom made his arguments in front of the Michigan Court of Appeals in Lansing on Wednesday, Jan. 11. Chappelle had exercised his right to appeal Ingham County Judge Joyce Draganchuk’s decision to summarily dismiss his case in Oct. 2021.
When they filed his appeal, Chappelle’s lawyers had asked the court to hear oral arguments. But the day before the Jan. 11 hearing, they called the court and said they weren’t going to show up after all.
Wassom consequently kept his arguments brief.
It’s been a long time getting to this point.
The suit against ELi and Dreger was originally filed in April, 2021 and centered around two published items: ELi’s June 2020 report that Chappelle had just been federally indicted on eight charges and an essay published at the local discussion forum Public Response two days later. Dreger authored both pieces.
Chappelle filed the lawsuit against Dreger and ELi in Washtenaw County, claiming defamation and that the defendants were interfering with his business. The case was moved at ELi’s request to Ingham County, where Draganchuk ruled in ELi’s and Dreger’s favor on two motions and then granted the defendants’ request for summary dismissal.
In Dec. 2021, Draganchuk declined to award ELi and Dreger fees in the case, and Chappelle filed his appeal.
Chappelle has since pleaded guilty to tax evasion and been ordered to pay more than $1.3 million to the federal government. As ELi recently reported, he is now serving a 38-month federal prison sentence in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Officially, it can take months to receive a ruling on an appeal. But Borrello’s words would seem to leave little doubt about the outcome.
The appeal argument from Wassom, heard by Borrello and Judges Sima Patel and Douglas Shapiro, amounted to a speedy end to a lengthy legal process.
In the seven-minute hearing, Wassom argued there has never been any basis for Chappelle’s claim that he was defamed.
“From the beginning, your honors, in the circuit court and before this court, this case has been a farce,” Wassom said. “This is an exercise of Mr. Chapelle’s vanity and vendetta parading as a defamation claim.”
“At no point in the proceedings before either court has Mr. Chapelle identified an objectively false statement, which is the core of what you need in order to allege a defamation claim,” Wassom said.
The strong reaction by Borrello constituted a comfort to Dreger following the protracted and stressful legal process.
“Mr. Wassom warned me before the hearing that it might be anti-climactic, because the plaintiffs weren’t even showing up,” Dreger said via email. “But it felt quite climactic after all.”
Wassom said, going into the appeal, he was confident the court would rule in ELi’s favor. But not even he anticipated such a direct statement in support of his clients.
“I expected them to have that opinion of the case,” he said. “It was a pleasant surprise to hear them state it so directly.”
You can watch the seven-minute Appeals Court hearing by clicking here.