Cayuga Nation Loses Defamation Case Over ‘Billions’ Episode That Depicted It as Corrupt Casino Owner

Posted on: July 23, 2020, 03:19h. 

Last updated on: July 27, 2020, 10:07h.

The Cayuga Nation has failed in its bid to sue the Showtime network and the writers and producers of hit show Billions for defamation.

Cayuga Nation Lawsuit Billions
The Halftowns: fictional Jane (left), played by Tanis Parenteau, and the disputed Cayuga Nation leader Clint. A judge in New York decided the public would be unlikely to confuse the two. (Image: Showtime/Cayuga Nation)

The New York State-based tribe launched legal action against the network and the show’s creators, including Andrew Ross Sorkin, in August last year, after an episode of Billions depicted it participating in shady casino land deals.

The Nation complained that the episode, which aired May 5, 2019, used the tribe’s real name and painted it as an “irresponsible, corruptible, and even criminal” casino owner.

The Nation does not operate full-scale casino gaming in New York but owns two Class II bingo parlors in Union Springs under the Lakeside Entertainment banner.

The tribe has long sought to have the US Interior Department take land into trust for it, which could allow it to offer Class III casino gaming. The lawsuit argued the Billions portrayal could prejudice its application with the DOI.

Immune to Defamation

Cayuga tribal leader Clint Halftown was also a plaintiff in the suit. He complained that the show featured a female tribal council member called “Jane Halftown” who was depicted bribing a politician.

But lawyers for Showtime argued that the tribe cannot sue for defamation because it’s a sovereign nation, and Halftown can’t sue for defamation as an individual because the character that shared his last name was not meant to be him. Moreover, Billions is understood by the public to be a work of fiction, the lawyers asserted.

The New York Supreme Court agreed.

The defamation claim by the Cayuga Nation must be dismissed since the allegedly defamatory material was ‘directed against a governing body and how it governed, rather than against its individual members, and the episode did not portray ‘the Tribal Council members [as] individually corrupt or individually promoting a criminal enterprise,'” wrote judge Kathryn E. Freed.

The judge added that while Halftown shared a last name with the fictional Jane Halftown, and they were both members of a tribal council, these were “superficial similarities insufficient to establish that Jane’s character represents Mr. Halftown.”

“Indeed, as defendants argue, plaintiffs ‘have failed to sufficiently allege that the episode’s depiction of Jane would be understood by the average viewer as conveying actual facts about [Mr. Halftown],’” she wrote.

Leadership Dispute

Halftown was accused of “domestic terrorism” by a Seneca County official in February after he ordered the bulldozing of a working daycare center, a schoolhouse, and a store, controlled by a rival tribal faction.

Halftown claimed he was reclaiming properties that had previously been stolen from the tribe by destroying them.

The DOI has put the land-into-trust decision on hold because of this ongoing leadership dispute.