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America’s Test Kitchen, Inc. v. Kimball

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk, Business Litigation Session

March 19, 2019

AMERICA’S TEST KITCHEN, INC., as the Sole General Partner of America’s Test Kitchen Limited Partnership
Christopher KIMBALL et al. America’s Test Kitchen, Inc., as General Partner of America’s Test Kitchen Limited Partnership and America’s Test Kitchen Limited Partnership

          File Date: March 20, 2019


          Janet L. Sanders, Justice of the Superior Court

         This memorandum addresses one of six summary judgment motions filed in litigation that arises from the departure of Christopher Kimball from the television and radio show "America’s Test Kitchen." Kimball’s former employer, America’s Test Kitchen, Inc. (ATK), filed suit against him and others following that departure, with the various defendants responding with claims of their own. ATK and a related entity, America’s Test Kitchen Limited Partnership (ATK LP), now move for partial summary judgment on certain of the counterclaims asserted against them by Kimball and CPK Media, LLC (CPK), the entity that Kimball formed to operate Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Kitchen, a cooking show in competition with America’s Test Kitchen. This Court concludes that the Motion must be DENIED.[1]

         Those counts in Kimball’s and CPK’s Second Amended Counterclaim (the Counterclaim) that are the subject of ATK’s Motion are: defamation/libel (Count I); tortious interference with advantageous business relations (Count II); violation of G.L.c. 93A, § 11 (Count III); breach of 2002 Limited Partnership Agreement (Count V); breach of fiduciary duty (Count VI) and requests for declaratory relief (Counts VII and part of Count IV). All of these counts relate to the circumstances surrounding Kimball’s departure from ATK: those circumstances have already been set forth in this Court’s decision on Kimball’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and will not be repeated here. However, certain additional facts are necessary to understand this Court’s ruling on the instant motion. The Court will therefore discuss each count separately, including in that discussion those facts relevant to this Court’s decision.

          A. Defamation (Count I)

          This Count arises from ATK’s decision to post on its website certain information about this lawsuit the day after the lawsuit was filed. Specifically, ATK posted on the website a copy of its Complaint in this case, a statement from ATK, a chronology of events, emails written by Kimball, and a section on frequently asked questions. In moving for summary judgment on this Count, ATK contends that because Kimball is a "public figure," he will have to prove by clear and convincing evidence that ATK acted with malice, and that as a consequence, he has no reasonable expectation of proving this claim. This Court disagrees.

          In support of its position that Kimball is a public figure, ATK points to the following facts. Kimball hosted ATK’s two television programs, America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country, from their inception through the 2016 season, both shows averaging a combined four million viewers per week. Kimball has personally appeared on the Today Show, Rachel Ray, Fresh Air, and Morning Edition; he has also received coverage in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and other media outlets. This Court concludes that these facts do not support the conclusion that Kimball is a public figure as that term has been defined by the case law.

          Courts have determined that a plaintiff in a defamation action is a public figure where he or she has acquired such fame or notoriety as to be "a household name on a national scale." Bowman v. Heller, 420 Mass. 517, 522-23 (1995) (internal quotation marks omitted). See Tavoulareas v. Piro, 817 F.2d 762, 772 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 870 (1987) (although plaintiff was prominent in business circles, "his celebrity in society at large does not approach that of a well-known athlete or entertainer— apparently the archetypes of the general purpose public figure"). Clearly, Kimball is not a public figure in this sense. Courts have also regarded an individual to be a public figure even absent such general notoriety where he or she has played a central role in a public controversy or matter of public concern which is the subject of plaintiff’s claim. Bowman v. Heller, 420 Mass. at 523. See LaChance v. Boston Herald, 78 Mass.App.Ct. 910, 911 (2011), quoting Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1974). In the instant case, the defamation counterclaim concerns statements that ATK posted on its website about this litigation, which arises from a dispute between a private company and its former employee— hardly a matter of public concern or the subject of public controversy. Because ATK’s motion regarding this Count depends on this Court finding that Kimball is a public figure, it necessarily follows that the motion must be denied as to Count I.[2]

          B. Tortious Interference Claim (Count II)

          Count II of the Counterclaim alleges that ATK interfered with CPK’s relationship with potential investors and/or businesses, including the following entities: Hearst Media, WGBH, PRX (a radio programming distributor and promotor), APT (radio distributor and station), Fisher Paykel (a kitchen appliance manufacturer), Home Depot, Ankarsrum (high-end kitchen mixer manufacturer), Catrine Kelty (a food stylist), and unidentified customers. This Count also alleges that ATK took steps to prevent Kimball himself from investing in CPK and that, in pursuing baseless claims against both Kimball and CPK, ATK has improperly impeded their lawful competition. Having reviewed the summary judgment record, this Court concludes that there are genuine disputes of fact as to whether such interference has occurred, as described at pages fifteen through nineteen of the Memorandum in Opposition to this Motion.

          C. Violation of Chapter 93A (Count III)

         Count III alleges a violation of G.L.c. 93A, § 11 and relies on the same factual allegations underlying Counts I and II. Because this Court concludes that those counts survive summary judgment, it necessarily follows that the Chapter 93A claim also survives.

          D. 2002 Partnership Agreement and the 2016 Amendment (Counts V and VII)

          Counts V and VII of the Counterclaim depend on this Court’s interpretation of provisions in a Third Amended and Restated Limited Partnership Agreement dated June 1, 2002 (the 2002 LPA) and whether a 2016 amendment of that ...

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