Netflix Loses Bid to Dismiss ‘Inventing Anna’ Defamation Lawsuit

A former friend of con artist Anna Sorokin was allowed on Tuesday to proceed with a defamation lawsuit against Netflix over the Shonda Rhimes miniseries, “Inventing Anna.”

Netflix had argued that Rhimes and the other show creators have a “literary license” to give their interpretation of events. In rejecting that argument, Chief Judge Colm F. Connolly found that at least some of the characterizations in the show could cross the line into defamation.

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The plaintiff, Rachel DeLoache Williams, was depicted as abandoning Sorokin in Morocco and ultimately betraying her to the authorities. Williams has claimed that 16 separate sets of statements in the series falsely portray her as “snobbish,” “unethical” and “greedy.”

Sorokin pretended to be a German heiress by the name of Anna Delvey. She was ultimately convicted of cheating banks and other businesses out of about $200,000, and served nearly four years in custody. She is now on house arrest while she fights deportation.

Williams, a former staffer for Vanity Fair, wrote an article and then a book about her experience with Sorokin, whom she accuses of defrauding her out of $62,000.

In its defense, Netflix has argued that Rhimes’ rendition of the high-profile case was protected by the First Amendment.

“Indeed, to allow constitutionally-protected artistic expression to flourish, content creators like Netflix
must be allowed some breathing space to interpret the actions and decisions of those involved in a public controversy like the Sorokin trial,” argued the company’s lawyers, led by Thomas E. Hanson, Jr.

Hanson argued that the characterization of Williams was an opinion — and therefore protected by from defamation claims. Hanson also argued that the depiction was not false, and in fact was backed up by Williams’ own account. By filing the lawsuit, Hanson alleged that Williams was simply trying to “stifle the expression she does not like” in favor of her preferred version of events.

Williams has argued that the show was too sympathetic to Sorokin, and distorted reality by transforming Sorokin’s character from a villain into an anti-hero, whom the audience is asked to root for on some level.

”Despite being a con artist, the Series presents Sorokin’s brazen willingness to lie, cheat and steal her way past supposedly unjust obstacles rooted in bureaucracy, ageism and sexism as admirable,” her lawsuit states.

In the process, the suit alleges that Williams’ character was transformed from a victim into a foil. According to the complaint, the series depicts Williams as a freeloader and a false friend, who was only hanging out with Sorokin because she would pick up the tab.

In his ruling, Connolly did not go through all 16 sets of allegedly defamatory statements. But he did analyze two of them, involving the supposed abandonment in Morocco. In the show, Sorokin is seen drinking and depressed, and begs Williams not to leave.

Williams has maintained that Sorokin knew all along that she would be leaving the trip early, and the idea that Sorokin was distraught was an invention. The judge found that the difference is a question of fact — not opinion.

“As Williams alleges, the statements indicate that Williams ‘abandoned Sorokin when Sorokin was alone, depressed and in trouble in Morocco,'” the judge wrote. “And whether Sorokin was in a troubled state and Williams left her at that point can be proven true or false.”

The plaintiff’s attorney has already served a series of subpoenas in the case, including ones on Sorokin and on Katie Lowes, the actor who plays Williams.

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