Attorney Joshua Matz on E. Jean Carroll’s Legal Victory Against Donald Trump

One of E. Jean Carroll's attorneys, Joshua Matz, of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP.
One of E. Jean Carroll’s attorneys, Joshua Matz, of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP.

Former Elle Magazine advice columnist E. Jean Carroll has been awarded a total of $88.3 million in damages by two unanimous federal juries in her nearly six-year defamation legal battle against former President Donald Trump.

Carroll accused Trump of sexually assaulting her in late 1995 or early 1996 in a Bergdorf Goodman department store dressing room in her memoir “What Do We Need Men For?: A Modest Proposal.” An excerpt of her memoir was published in New York Magazine’s The Cut in June 2019.

Following the excerpt’s release, Trump denied knowing Carroll and claimed she wasn’t his “type,” prompting Carroll to file a defamation suit in 2019. She filed a second suit in 2022 for defamation and battery under the Adult Survivors Act, which went into effect in November 2022 and provided a one-year window for sexual assault survivors who were 18 years or older at the time of their assault to file civil proceedings against their alleged abusers despite the statute of limitations.

Carroll was awarded $83.3 million in damages in January for the first suit, adding to the $5 million Trump was ordered to pay her in May 2023 for the second suit.

In an interview with First Amendment Watch, Carroll’s attorney, Joshua Matz, who worked on her legal team throughout both proceedings, discussed the competing legal strategies behind the case, the effect of Trump’s presence on the proceedings, and the hope that Carroll’s fight to hold Trump accountable shows other sexual assault survivors that they, too, might seek justice.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

FAW: The first complaint, filed in 2019, focused on three statements Trump made in response to Carroll’s rape allegation. When someone is accused of something, they have a right to deny the accusation, but what was different in Trump’s statements that crossed the line into defamation?

JM: There is authority for the proposition that the bare denial of a claim of sexual assault can, in some circumstances, be defamatory. But in this case, Donald Trump’s statements went well beyond a bare denial. In the statements that he made on June 21, 22 and 24 of 2019, he threatened Ms. Carroll, he insulted Ms. Carroll’s appearance, but most importantly, for purposes of the defamation claims, he also made additional specific accusations and implications. For example, he stated, or implied, but very clearly implied, that she had been paid off, that she had an inappropriate financial motive, that she was working in coordination with the Democrats, that this was all part of a partisan conspiracy, that she had falsely accused other unnamed men of sexual assault, and more. And because Mr. Trump’s denials included a host of additional false and defamatory statements and implications, and because they were layered with threats and insults, this went well beyond the circumstance that he had simply denied her charges.

FAW: Trump often speaks in hyperboles. How did you handle arguments that Trump was merely expressing an exaggerated opinion?

JM: It’s true that Mr. Trump’s public statements are not generally models of precision. It’s also true that he laces many of his statements with hyperbole and exaggeration and other inflammatory claims. But the statements that he made with Ms. Carroll, were riddled with very specific and obviously false and defamatory, factual allegations about her. Mr. Trump never really denied that his statements had all of the false and defamatory implications that we said they did. To the contrary, in his deposition, he was immediately ready to agree that they did. And he asserted that he stood by each and every one of them. And there is no Donald Trump exception to the principle that people can be held accountable for the things they say.

A screenshot from Donald Trump’s October 2022 deposition in E. Jean Carroll’s battery and defamation trial against him, in this trial exhibit released by the court, May 5, 2023.

FAW: Trump’s attorneys argued in court filings, in an attempt to get him out of trouble, that Trump’s statements were made in his official capacity as president. If they had been successful, it would have been the end of the lawsuit, since federal officials receive wide-ranging protections from defamation lawsuits. How did you navigate that?

JM: In some ways, the story of the past seven years is the story of the legal system trying, and not always succeeding, to hold Donald Trump accountable for the things that he said. That’s a big part of the story of Jan. 6. It was a big part of the story of many lawsuits that got filed while he was president, including the travel ban litigation, where so much of the evidence of animus came from his own public statements. And so the question of when Mr. Trump can be held liable based on things that he has said, or for things that he has said, has bedeviled the legal system for a while now and for that reason, it was particularly satisfying to see not one but two, unanimous federal juries conclude that he could be held liable for the false and defamatory statements he made about Ms. Carroll. If you look at the Westfall Act, and the presidential absolute immunity issue, those are doctrines that might otherwise provide formidable protections to federal officials from defamation claims, and yet, Donald Trump ultimately could not avail himself of either of them.

FAW: Suppose Trump continues to defame Carroll … What then? What legal recourse is available? Is Carroll prepared to fight him in court again?

JM: For now, I think the important thing is that Ms. Carroll has been so powerfully vindicated by a unanimous federal jury. And it’s been made clear to Mr. Trump that he has to pay the price, literally, for his false and defamatory statements. Of course, if he continues to engage in that conduct, Ms. Carroll will have no shortage of legal options available to her.

FAW: Is Trump actually going to pay Carroll $88.3 million? How long might that take?

JM: I would expect that Donald Trump will appeal and will attempt to fight the verdict. But at the end of the day, there is no Donald Trump exception to the rule that people have to satisfy judgments against them. I don’t think Donald Trump has any serious chance of prevailing on an appeal in this case. And at the end of the appellate process, Ms. Carroll most certainly intends to collect on the judgment in her favor.

FAW: While Trump did not attend the trial last May, he did attend the most recent trial in late January. What effect did his presence have on the proceedings, if any?

JM: I think everybody found Donald Trump’s presence in the courtroom to be stressful and distracting. Particularly because he continually engaged in childish antics. For example, he would loudly mutter under his breath, and whisper to his attorneys, and make facial expressions, and wave his hands around, and sometimes get up and essentially storm out. If I had to guess, his presence in the courtroom did not do him a lot of favors, because the jury got to see up close and personal that he is just a man, that he was visibly not in control of himself, and that he acted with open malice toward Ms. Carroll and the entire judicial process.

FAW: After the verdict, Trump’s attorney, Alina Habba, said the case was successful because Ms. Carroll’s lawsuit, along with others filed by the former president’s opponents, have been filed “in states where they know they will get juries like this.” How would you respond to that?

JM: It’s hardly surprising that Donald Trump would complain about the jury and the jury pool and the judge, and the court, and virtually everything else about the proceeding. But the reality is that the judge held a thorough and fair judicial jury selection process and every one of those jurors swore an oath to be impartial.

E. Jean Carroll

E. Jean Carroll, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s rape accuser, arrives for the start of a civil case at Manhattan federal court in New York City, April 25, 2023. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

FAW: Carroll of course was fighting back against the tarnishing of her reputation, but knowing that #MeToo whistleblowers are often retaliated against, did Carroll feel like she was fighting for more than just herself? What message was she trying to send?

JM: E. Jean is one of the most wonderful and extraordinary people I have ever met. She is a walking beacon of light and a joy to be around. But in our representation of her, she confronted some of the most extraordinarily awful things that had happened in her life. And she had to confront, in person, in court, the unbelievably powerful man who had sexually assaulted her, and then attempted to ruin her life when she revealed what he had done. It took immense bravery for Ms. Carroll to do what she did, and to persist in it for years against all the legal formalities, continuing defamatory attacks that she had to endure. And there’s no doubt that she was doing it for reasons beyond her own personal vindication. You know, E. Jean sees herself, and rightly so, as fighting for the rule of law and for all women everywhere. She recognizes that too many powerful men are able to abuse women and walk away without consequence. And that too many women are afraid to come forward and reveal mistreatment. She hopes that her case illuminates a path forward and gives people hope who might not otherwise have it.

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