Nevada Supreme Court Rejects Wynn Defamation Suit
The Wall Street Journal exposé that drove Steve Wynn out of the gaming industry was based in large part on accusations from a former Wynn Las Vegas hair stylist. The dethroned tycoon claims those statements were known to be untrue when they were made. The high court disagrees.
The hair stylist whose public accusations of sexual misconduct helped bring down Steve Wynn has won a ruling in Nevada Supreme Court against a defamation suit brought by the former casino tycoon.
The high court reversed a lower court decision in finding that Jorgen Nielsen, who once worked at the salon at Wynn Las Vegas and claimed to know that Wynn routinely used his power as head of Wynn Resorts to prey on the salon’s female staffers for sexual favors, was entitled to protection under the state’s anti-SLAPP law.
Anti-SLAPP laws in essence apply the tougher standards of libel law to defamation cases in order to shield defendants from plaintiffs “using courts, and potential threats of a lawsuit, to intimidate people who are exercising their First Amendment rights,” according to a report on the ruling by The Nevada Independent.
Nielsen’s accusations, together with those of several of Wynn’s reputed victims, formed the substance of a bombshell January 2018 story in The Wall Street Journal that forced Wynn to resign as chairman and CEO of the publicly traded gaming giant that bears his name.
Wynn denied the allegations, but his departure and subsequent divestiture of his stock in the company sparked an exodus of his closest confidantes in the executive ranks and a purge of the board of directors of his close associates. Wynn Resorts later was fined a combined $55 million by regulators in Nevada and Massachusetts for failing to act on years of complaints by the billionaire’s alleged victims and for an entrenched policy on the part of management to cover them up.
The scandal prompted the Nevada Gaming Commission to approve a new regulation requiring all gaming licensees of any size to implement procedures to prevent and combat discrimination and harassment in the workplace and to make them available to regulators for inspection.
The state Gaming Control Board also has moved to have Wynn declared “unsuitable” to hold a gaming license, effectively barring him from the industry for life and capping what is probably the most dramatic reversal of fortune in casino history. Wynn, once the most powerful public figure in Nevada, a confidante of Donald Trump’s, and prior to The Wall Street Journal’s revelations an emerging powerbroker in national Republican politics, is fighting the Control Board in the courts. That effort is still pending, however.
His action against Nielson dates back to April 2018, two months after he left Wynn Resorts, when he sued Nielsen for defamation. Nielsen filed for protection under the anti-SLAPP law. District Court Judge Tierra Jones denied his motion on the grounds that his accusations published by the Journal either were untruthful or had been made with knowledge that they were false.
The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the allegedly defamatory statements were “fairly accurate and truthful” and had been corroborated by the testimony of an anonymous Wynn Resorts employee who said she’d experienced harassment.
“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 now returns to Jones for a second test of the anti-SLAPP law, which is whether Wynn has “demonstrated with prima facie evidence a probability of prevailing” in his suit.
Nielsen, meanwhile, is suing Wynn Resorts and several current and former executives, alleging they engaged in a secret surveillance operation against him after Wynn’s departure. That case is scheduled for a jury trial next year.