Shearman & Sterling, together with co-counsel Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP, achieved an important victory for long-standing pro bono client International Crisis Group (ICG), when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the US District Court for the District of Columbia’s summary judgment motion dismissing a significant defamation claim brought against ICG. Subject to rehearing and US Supreme Court review, this brings to a close a heavily fought lawsuit begun by wealthy Serbian businessman Milan Jankovic, alias Philip Zepter, against ICG on July 15, 2004 for linking him to the notorious Serbian ruler Slobodan Milosevic.
ICG is a high-profile, non-governmental organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict. In July 2003, ICG published a report about stalled reform efforts in Serbia that named Zepter among members of a “new oligarchy” that had accumulated great wealth during the Milosevic regime and was continuing to exercise power in Serbia. Thereafter, Zepter filed this defamation suit against ICG seeking $75 million in damages. After two rounds of litigation in the district court and two appeals to the D.C. Circuit, the issues the district court was required to decide on remand were whether Zepter was a “limited public figure” and whether he could meet the high burden of establishing actual malice.
Over the course of a year and a half, substantial discovery ensued, including numerous depositions of ICG personnel and of Zepter and his employees. A large evidentiary record was put together based on US and foreign fact and expert witnesses, newspaper articles and investigative reports to support the arguments that Zepter was a “public figure” within the meaning of defamation law and could not meet his constitutional burden of proving that ICG published the challenged statement with actual malice. The District Court granted ICG’s motion for summary judgment and denied Zepter’s cross motion for partial summary judgment made on the grounds that he was a private figure and that the defamatory passage was false. Upon de novo review, the Circuit Court affirmed the summary judgment ruling in favor of ICG.