Netflix Hit With Lawsuit Over Inventing Anna, Highlighting Issue With So Many True Crime Shows Being Made

Anna, Rachel, Kacy and Neff outdoors in Inventing Anna
(Image credit: Netflix)

Recent years have witnessed an explosion of true crime media, from big-screen features to high-profile podcasts to an endless line of streaming docs and episodic adaptations. Netflix’s hit Inventing Anna represents a partial shift in subgenre focus from grisly murders and kidnappings to large-scale swindles, financial scamming and other forms of awful behavior, and the streaming service has offered up similarly schemey fare such as The Tinder Swindler, The Most Hated Man in America, and Worst Roommate Ever, among others. But there are consequences for doubling down on so many projects based on real events, as Netflix has been hit with a lawsuit over how one of Inventing Anna’s characters was portrayed.

The court complaint was filed on Monday, August 29, with former Vanity Fair photo editor Rachel Williams as the plaintiff seeking damages. Netflix appears to be the only defendant being targeted by the lawsuit, without executive producer Shonda Rimes or her Shondaland production company named, nor the actress who portrayed Williams in Inventing Anna, Scandal vet Katie Lowes. 

In the lawsuit, Rachel Williams’ lawyers accuse the show of defaming their client by using her actual name while portraying her in highly negative ways to fit the drama’s subject matter. Here’s how things were worded in the paperwork, via Deadline

This action will show that Netflix made a deliberate decision for dramatic purposes to show Williams doing or saying things in the Series which portray her as a greedy, snobbish, disloyal, dishonest, cowardly, manipulative and opportunistic person. . . . The Defamatory Statements are defamatory because they tend to expose her to public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace, or to induce an evil opinion of her, and they are defamatory per se because their import is apparent from the face of the Series without resort to any other source.

The sticking point here is the biggest factor in why the recent boom in true crime shows can be troublesome, in that Netflix and Shondaland paying over $320,000 to the central subject Anna “Delvey” Sorkin only granted them her life rights, as opposed to anyone else who may or may not have been involved. But while Rachel Williams didn’t see any financial windfalls from Netflix, she landed her own contract with HBO for her 2019 book My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress, in a deal that reportedly went for around $340,000, barring taxes. So there was additional motivation to take legal action against the streaming service even beyond the impact of alleged claims of defamation and invasion of privacy.

Williams’ lawsuit even lays out that reasoning in a direct but still questioning way that manages to send some praise to the Warner Bros Discovery premium cabler. 

The reason why we have had to file this lawsuit is because Netflix used Rachel’s real name and biographical details, and made her out to be a horrible person, which she is not. The devastating damage to her reputation could have been avoided if only Netflix had used a fictitious name and different details. Why didn’t they do this for her, when they did for so many other characters in the Series? Perhaps the reason was that she had chosen to play for the other team, i.e., HBO.

One imagines that TV and film creative teams would love to bring as much authentic information as possible into projects that are based on specific real-world events. But doing so would likely require breaking the bank for a bunch of studios, and a big spender like Netflix is no exception. As such, a consistent influx of new true crime projects obviously raises the potential for more and more cases like this to come up unless creators opt to just fictionalize every other character beyond the legally bound leads. 

It’s not even the first lawsuit of this kind that Netflix has faced, with The Queen’s Gambit also inspiring one that the service is still mired in. And if those lawsuits go the way the plaintiffs want them to, it potentially opens the door for more cases to rise up based on other projects from years past.

At this time, Rachel Williams and her legal team are seeking unspecified damages, while aiming for a jury trial and an injunction that would require Netflix to edit Katie Lowes’ portrayal of Williams out of Inventing Anna altogether. That would be fairly unprecedented, however, and it’s more likely that a settlement will take place ahead of a trial being set, but stranger things have certainly happened.

Inventing Anna snagged two major Emmy nominations earlier this year for both Outstanding Limited Series and for Julia Garner as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series, so it’s not like everyone’s awareness of the project is going to dissipate anytime soon. (Especially if it wins.) Anna Sorkin has stated she’s taken steps to distance herself from the scammy reputation that brought her international infamy, so she might be looking at whatever HBO eventually puts out to make sure she’s portrayed justly. 

Anyone with a Netflix subscription can currently streaming the entirety of Inventing Anna, with lots of other excellent shows to watch on the streaming service,  

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.