Judge Dismisses Majority of Nunes’ Family’s Defamation Claims Against Esquire Magazine

Ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Devin Nunes listens to a public hearing on the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald J. Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 19 November 2019. Shawn Thew/Pool via REUTERS

A judge for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Iowa Western Division dismissed nearly all of the claims in a defamation lawsuit filed by the family of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes against Esquire magazine and reporter Ryan Lizza.

Nunes’ father and brother sued the magazine and reporter for $25 million in July 2019 over an investigative story about the family’s dairy farm. The original complaint called the story a “legion of lies,” and claimed that the article contained 16 defamatory statements. The family amended the complaint on May 24th, 2020, after the presiding judge said the original failed to show how the statements were false. 

In a ruling filed on September 11th, U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams wrote that the majority of Nunes’ claims were unactionable because they involved opinions, were verifiably true, or otherwise did not meet the standard for defamation. According to Williams, only the claim that Nunes’ family used undocumented workers is actionable because it involves a statement of fact that, if true, could seriously damage the plaintiff’s reputation. 

“The clear gist or sting of the statements, with or without the omitted words, is that people sent undocumented workers to plaintiffs, plaintiffs knew the status of those workers, and hired them. Falsely accusing someone of knowingly employing undocumented workers is accusing someone of committing a crime. To falsely accuse a person of an indictable crime is defamatory,” Williams wrote. 

Williams is asking Nunes’ family to submit a new complaint “based only on a claim that defendants defamed plaintiffs by falsely alleging that they knowingly employed undocumented workers.” The new complaint will also have to contain a new argument showing actual malice, a legal term meaning that a writer intentionally or recklessly published false information. 

Nunes also sued Lizza and Esquire over the article, but Williams dismissed the case in August 2020, after finding that the majority of claims were either too ambiguous to be actionable or they involved subjective statements. 

Courthouse News Ruling