By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Monday said Devin Nunes, the former California congressman and an ally of former U.S. President Donald Trump, can sue NBCUniversal for defamation over a comment by Rachel Maddow concerning his relationship with a suspected Russian agent.
Without ruling on the merits, U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel in Manhattan said Nunes "plausibly allege[d] actual malice" with respect to a statement from a March 2021 broadcast of MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show."
Maddow was discussing a package addressed to Nunes from Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russia Ukrainian legislator, and said Nunes "refused to hand it over to the FBI, which is what you should do if you get something from somebody who is sanctioned by the U.S. as a Russian agent."
Nunes' complaint, which seeks damages, said MSNBC and Maddow knew the package had been turned over, but instead "set out to inflict maximum pain and suffering on plaintiff in order to harm plaintiff's reputation."
In a 22-page decision, Castel said Maddow did not attribute Nunes' alleged refusal to any source, and that while she might have known about a similar accusation in a Politico article "a court does not weigh competing, plausible theories of actual malice on a motion to dismiss."
The judge also said other statements made by Maddow were not defamatory. Maddow is not a defendant.
NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast Corp, and its lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Nunes' lawyers did not immediately respond to similar requests.
The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Derkach in September 2020 for trying to interfere in that year's U.S. presidential election, after he was linked to the dissemination of information to hurt then-Democratic candidate and eventual victor Joe Biden.
Nunes left Congress last December to become chief executive of the social media venture Trump Media & Technology Group.
He has sued several news organizations in recent years.
In April, federal appeals courts in New York and Washington, D.C. refused to revive defamation cases by Nunes against CNN, which is part of Warner Bros Discovery Inc, and the Washington Post.
The case is Nunes v NBCUniversal Media Inc, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 22-01633.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Shri Navaratnam)