The Nevada Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a former Wynn Resorts hair stylist attempting to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by former casino mogul Steve Wynn for his role in a Wall Street Journal story alleging a decades-long pattern of sexual misconduct allegations.
In a three-justice opinion issued Tuesday, members of the court reversed a lower court’s decision and ruled in favor of Jorgen Nielsen in an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss a defamation claim filed by Wynn in April 2018. The lawsuit was filed after the former hair stylist went on the record for a Wall Street Journal investigation into Wynn’s alleged sexual harassment against employees that ultimately contributed to his departure from the publicly traded casino company.
Nevada and many other states have anti-SLAPP laws in place designed to protect free speech by allowing defendants to file a special motion to dismiss lawsuits brought by people “using courts, and potential threats of a lawsuit, to intimidate people who are exercising their First Amendment rights,” according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Under Nevada’s anti-SLAPP law, a court is required to determine two “prongs” before granting the special motion to dismiss. In this case, District Court Judge Tierra Jones denied Nielsen’s anti-SLAPP motion under the first prong, saying he failed to establish the defamation claim was “based upon a good faith communication in furtherance of the right to petition or the right to free speech in direct connection with an issue of public concern.”
Essentially, that translates to the court deciding that Nielsen failed to make statements that were either truthful or made without knowledge of them being false.
But the Supreme Court reversed that decision, finding that Nielsen’s remarks challenged as defamatory were “fairly accurate and truthful,” and corroborated by the testimony of an anonymous Wynn Resorts employee who said she experienced harassment.
Citing a previous anti-SLAPP precedent the court made in a libel case filed by perennial political candidate Danny Tarkanian, the court ruled that “Nielsen demonstrated that the gist of his communication was truthful or made without knowledge of its falsehood.”
“Because Nielsen showed that his communication was made in direct connection with an issue of public interest in a public forum, and was truthful or made without knowledge of its falsehood, we hold that he met his burden under the first prong of the anti-SLAPP analysis,” Justice Mark Gibbons wrote in the court’s order.
The case, which Wynn filed in April 2018, now returns to District Court, where Judge Tierra Jones will be required to assess the second prong of the anti-SLAPP test — whether the plaintiff (Wynn) has “demonstrated with prima facie evidence a probability of prevailing” on the claim.
Attorneys for Wynn and Neilsen did not return emailed requests for comments on Thursday.
Wynn, 78, resigned from his casino company in February 2018 following the publication of the sexual harassment allegations, while denying all allegations against him. Wynn Resorts was fined a record-setting $20 million by the state Gaming Commission in 2019 over the company’s failure to investigate those sexual misconduct claims.
Nielsen filed a lawsuit against Wynn Resorts and top company executives in October 2019, alleging that they engaged in a secret surveillance operation targeting him two months after Steve Wynn had relinquished his position as head of his casino company. That case is still pending and has a jury trial scheduled for next year.