July 25th, 2017

Different Kinds of Lawyers (Protecting Free Speech)

Today is a tale of two lawyers. Actually, two different kinds of lawyers.

The first is the ambulance chaser. And no, I don’t mean the kind that literally go running to hospitals where they weren’t called. That may happen, but it’s rare.

No, I’m talking about the rarefied air of Supreme Court litigation — where a select few lawyers race to those whose cases have been accepted to scream that the lawyers that got you this far can’t do this high faultin’ stuff, hire me instead. To get the glory.

The other kind of lawyer is the one that does the grunt work, toiling in a press-free arena.

Those two types are now sharply juxtaposed with a post from intellectual property and free speech lawyer Ron Coleman — see what I did with that link? –in his story on That Great Free First Amendment Thing.

Coleman has been handling a case for years for a rock group called The Slants, by their leader Simon Tam, who were denied a trademark for their band’s name because it was disparaging to Asians. Such was the law, as trademarks would not be issued for “immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute.”

Coleman took In re Tam and argued that, if the group wanted to reclaim a weaponized racial slur — which the gay community has done with a variety of insults such as dykes and queers — why should the U.S. government stop them from doing so? The government should not be in the business of stopping disparagement.

This was a First Amendment issue and Coleman picked up the ball and ran with it all the way to the Supreme Court. It’s the same issue that the Washington Redskins faced when their trademark was stripped from them for being disparaging.

And a funny thing happened when the court granted cert. The “Chasers” came out of the woodwork to try to snatch his years of toil (done for free) so that they could claim the glory. According to Coleman, “The vultures were calling.  Circling.  They smelled fresh kill.”:

Experienced federal appellate lawyers knew very clearly what was happening before their eyes:  In re Tam was going to be a winner.  And now that, after six years of wretched anonymous work by others from the trademark registration application through the TTAB appeal, the panel appeal in the CAFC and the en banc appeal, the vultures wanted in on it…

I got calls.  Simon Tam got calls.  And they all went more or less like this:

You guys were simply delightful in the Federal Circuit, coming out of New Jersey and all that.  Charming country lawyers.  But now it’s you against the Solicitor General, the Justice Department.  And, really, the justices themselves.  They don’t like strangers, and they don’t like amateurs poking around at the First Amendment.  So you need us.

The Redskins lawyers told us it was time to hand over our case to them, because we couldn’t win it the way they could win it.  We could keep our names on the brief if we wanted, but it was time to get out of the way.  This could only be handled by Supreme Court Elite — the SCOTUS regulars, former SCOTUS clerks who knew how to play the justices the way no Jersey bumpkins ever could.

Coleman was not amused. He told them to pound sand. And with the case now over with a resounding 8-0 victory last month, he gets to write about the vultures. And he does.

Which brings us to the second kind of lawyer, the one who toils in virtual anonymity. For Coleman was also helping fellow blogger Patrick Frey, an assistant district attorney out in California who writes the conservative legal blog Patterico’s Pontifications.  He’s played along as part of a couple of my April Fool’s gags in years gone by.

Patterico blogged about the Speedway Bomber, Brett Kimberlin, charitably described by Eugene Volokh as a “colorful past convict and current assiduous litigant who has been suing various conservative bloggers.” And Kimberlin sued him in Maryland.

The problem was that Coleman is a New York and Jersey guy, and he needed a Maryland attorney to assist. He tried hard to find a good-sized law firm, that could afford to do the pro bono work, to help. Crickets. Ken White at Popehat sent up the Popehat Signal to look for help. More crickets from the locals.

So Maryland employment lawyer Bruce Godfrey — see what I did there again? — stepped into the breach. He was not part of the big firm that was really needed because a lot of time would be spent, but big enough. And Godfrey came through in spades.

Because the case was just dismissed. Patterico writes:

I can’t say enough about these guys. They stood by me at all times, working for no pay — all for the righteous cause of defending free speech. Ron Coleman juggled this case with his internationally known pro bono case for the Slants, which resulted in total victory and a landmark opinion for free speech. In addition to his fine legal work with Ron on the briefs, Bruce Godfrey dealt with a prickly and difficult client (that’s me!) on discovery issues, and spent countless hours cataloguing, redacting, and organizing the voluminous discovery — not to mention dealing with the court and Kimberlin, and navigating me and Ron through the Maryland legal world.

I’m not going to sit here and claim that I agree politically with Coleman or Patterico or Godfrey on any particular political issue. Because that is not the point. The First Amendment doesn’t belong to the right or the left, it belongs to all of us. When the rights of one are curtailed then the rights of all of us are.

One only need look at places like Turkey, Russia, the Phillipines that have previously experienced some levels of freedom and democracy to see how easily such rights can be lost.

So a tip of my hat today to the three of them, for standing their ground and persevering. We are all better off for the time and effort they have spent.
———-
Updated with other takes:

Patterico Wins, and You Need to Know (Greenfield @ Simple Justice)

Brett Kimberlin lawsuit against Patrick Frey (Patterico) thrown out of court (Jacobson @ Legal Insurrection)

Patterico Vindicated: Judge Rules Against Brett Kimberlin’s Failed Federal Suit (McCain @ The Other McCain)

 

May 1st, 2017

The First Amendment Under Attack (From the Left and the Right)

There’s no question that the First Amendment is under attack today people claiming to be from both the right and the left.

Let’s start with the right and Donald Trump (to the extent anyone considers Trump a right-winger): On Sunday came the revelation that Trump may try to alter the First Amendment right to free speech because he can’t handle criticism.

This is not hyperbole on my part — I shy away from such things — but comes from Chief of Staff Reince Priebus explicitly saying so to ABC’s Jonathon Karl on Sunday. Priebus stated that they were “looking at” just such a scenario, to amend/abolish the power to speak freely. This was the first of two exchanges on the subject, that you can view online (emphasis added):

KARL: I want to ask you about two things the President has said on related issues. First of all, there was what he said about opening up the libel laws. Tweeting “the failing New York Times has disgraced the media world. Gotten me wrong for two solid years. Change the libel laws?” That would require, as I understand it, a constitutional amendment. Is he really going to pursue that? Is that something he wants to pursue?

PRIEBUS: I think it’s something that we’ve looked at. How that gets executed or whether that goes anywhere is a different story. But when you have articles out there that have no basis or fact and we’re sitting here on 24/7 cable companies writing stories about constant contacts with Russia and all these other matters—

And, in the event anyone wants to chalk this up to “maybe he misspoke,” he made it clear by reiterating it:

KARL: So you think the President should be able to sue the New York Times for stories he doesn’t like?

PRIEBUS: Here’s what I think. I think that newspapers and news agencies need to be more responsible with how they report the news. I am so tired.

KARL: I don’t think anybody would disagree with that. It’s about whether or not the President should have a right to sue them.

PRIEBUS: And I already answered the question. I said this is something that is being looked at. But it’s something that as far as how it gets executed, where we go with it, that’s another issue.

Trump, of course, is (in)famously on record as wanting to “open up our libel laws” to allow him to more freely sue people when he gets irked because news isn’t reported the way he likes.  He seems to forget that, in order to be President and debate the issues of the day, he needs to put on his big boy pants when people decide to flay him for his words or conduct.

And this is evident from his prior conduct in bringing bullshit defamation claims to silence people or punish them for exercising free speech rights. Trump hates the First Amendment. And that is a danger.

But as I noted at the start, the First Amendment is also under assault from people who claim to be from the left. Over at UC/Berkeley, that bastion of liberalism, demonstrations over the appearance of right-wing hate mongers for profit MiloYiannopoulos led to the University cancelling his appearance instead of protecting him.

Then the same thing happened to that other hate monger for profit, Ann Coulter. The university canceled her appearance due to concern over the reaction to her, amounting to a”hecklers veto.” By rewarding those that threaten to commit crimes, the university merely empowered them to repeat their un-American conduct of trying to silence speech (instead of rebut) that they disagree with.

You’ll note that I described these people as those “who claim to be from the left.” They aren’t. Even if they say they are.

Neither conservatives nor liberals are opposed to free speech. But authoritarians are. And authoritarians can come from either the ostensible left or the right. What they want most is the ability to exercise power without regard to open debate.

The answer to speech with which we disagree is simple: More speech. ‘Tis the nature of our republic.

Journalists that describe the hoodlums as “left” or “right” are not only making a mistake, but doing a disservice to the country. Call them thugs, anarchists, wannabe dictators or any other name, so long as it doesn’t align with traditional American political parties and values that embrace open debate. Because they aren’t part of that. And yes, that includes Trump (who’s overriding political philosophy, to the extent such things exist, is not right or left, but TrumpFirst).

It is that First Amendment, of course, that gives people the right to criticize governments (among many other things). The First Amendment is not a partisan issue, but a principle of how a democracy functions.

Keep your eyes open folks, because this all looks to get a lot uglier for America. Regardless of which side of the political divide you fall on.

Elsewhere:

Berkeley’s 99 Problems (Greenfield @ Simple Justice)

Donald Trump’s Lawyers Don’t Know Or Don’t Care What Defamation Is (White @ Popehat)

Donald Trump vs. The First Amendment (Cole @ The Nation)

Gawker’s Demise and the Trump-Era Threat to the First Amendment (Tobin @ The New Yorker)

 

November 1st, 2016

Trump and the Threat of Legal Sanctions

Trump Free speech

An old graphic, because Trump is a repeat offender.

Today we once again turn to Donald Trump, the One Man Bar Exam. Specifically, as to how he might be sanctioned in New York should he bring a frivolous defamation suit here.

Quick background: To absolutely no one’s surprise, Trump threatened to sue the New York Times two weeks ago for defamation because it reported the news. Specifically, it reported that women had stepped forward to assert that he’d sexually assaulted them.

He then went on to assert that he would likewise sue the bevy of women who have stepped forward to talk about the assaults they claimed.

Now comes Ted Boutrous of Gibson Dunn and Crutcher to say that he will defend anyone Trump sues. For free. And he likely has 100 lawyers around the country willing to pitch in their services. There is no shortage of lawyers who would gladly take Trump’s testimony and delight in obtaining liberal discovery about him and his manner with women.

In a discussion on how Trump would get destroyed if he were dumb enough to bring such a suit, Boutrous writes at Politico regarding sanctions:

If Trump does end up pursuing these cases, he could do worse than lose. He could get hit with monetary sanctions for bringing frivolous claims and be subjected to countersuits by these women, who can argue that he has defamed them by calling them “liars” and who are private figures and thus not governed by the Sullivan “actual malice” standard that restricts Trump’s claims against them. All they would have to prove would be that Trump negligently made a false statement that injured their reputations.

Now I don’t actually think Trump will sue. I think he did this solely to intimidate others from coming forward, so that they would think, “I don’t need this shit.” It’s a classic case of intimidation.

But if he is irrational enough to ignore the advice not to sue, and he brings the action in state court in New York where he lives, I’m here to tell you the legal mechanics of how such a sanction could come to be.

Since I’ve been sued twice for defamation over blog posts here, in addition to being a personal injury attorney who routinely brings lawsuits, I have a pretty good prospective from both sides of the -v-.

Since I think the case is an absolute slam dunk against Trump if he sues a media outlet I’m going to leap ahead and go straight to the issue of sanctions.

I’ve written about this stuff before. After Trump brought a dumb defamation claim against Univision, and sought $500M in damages, I laid out the case against him. Then I wrote an April Fool’s gag, complete with fake judicial opinion, laying out the case for sanctions.

In supporting the motion for sanctions, the court might consider Trump’s prior acknowledgment that he brings frivolous suits, as he stated to the Washington Post:

Trump said in an interview that he knew he couldn’t win the suit but brought it anyway to make a point. “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”

While New York doesn’t have an anti-SLAPP statute, much to my dismay (my NYLJ op-ed is here), and has a judicial culture against sanctions, any lawyer dumb enough into letting his arm be twisted into bringing suit may well look to New York’s state court as the place to sue.

So these are the four places to look for sanctions in a New York action that I can conceive — two of which I have never seen happen —  assuming the judge bucks the judicial culture against awarding them:

First:   CPLR 8303-a: This provides for an award of mandatory costs and fees up to $10,000 for making a “frivolous” claim. In order to meet this definition of frivolousness under this statute, a court must find either that

(1) the “claim … was commenced, used or continued in bad faith, solely to delay or prolong, the resolution of the litigation or to harass or maliciously injure another”; or

(2) “the claim … was commenced or continued in bad faith without any reasonable basis in law or fact and could not be supported by a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.”

Note that this is per claim, so that if Trump brings suit with multiple claims, it is 10K per claim, not per lawsuit. It’s a nice multiplication factor to use against the vexatious litigant.

Second:  Then there are the court rules, specifically, 22 NYCRR § 130.1–1, wherein a court, in its discretion, may also impose financial sanctions upon any party who engages in frivolous conduct. Conduct is frivolous if:

(1) it is completely without merit in law and cannot be supported by a reasonable argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law;

(2) it is undertaken primarily to delay or prolong the resolution of the litigation, or to harass or maliciously injure another; or

(3) it asserts material factual statements that are false. (22 NYCRR § 130.1–1[c][1–3].)

So essentially we have a statute for commencing a frivolous suit and a court rule for conduct. The one for conduct has no limitation.

Third:  This is for an angry judge, who wants to buck the judicial culture against sanctions, and try to use the logic used by the federal courts, wherein courts retain an inherent power to sanction, “to manage their own proceedings and to control the conduct of those who appear before them.” Chambers v. Nasco.

New York judges already have the power to dismiss cases and award attorneys fees, but how far beyond that is an open question. (See, New York’s Court of Appeals in 2014 in CDR Creances SAS v. Cohen, in the context of fraud on the court, with discussion of federal court decisions.)

A judge angry with an abuse of the courts with such a frivolous suit by a wealthy individual might easily expand the Chambers v. Nasco rationale to New York, and it could easily be upheld in such a circumstance.

And I would argue that a sanction should be commensurate with Trump’s wealth, to insure that it has the necessary impact. Let’s fact it, a $10,000 sanction for someone that claims to be worth “in excess of $10 billion” is not even a rounding error for the accountants.

Fourth: If Trump brings suit, there is a 110% chance of him placing a ginormous, stupid number claim for damages in the complaint (even though he may well be libel-proof).  You are, quite simply, not permitted to do that, as it would explicitly violate CPLR § 3017(c), which prohibits ad damnum clauses (the monetary damage clause) in personal injury cases. It reads, quite simply:

In an action to recover damages for personal injuries or wrongful death, the complaint, … shall contain a prayer for general relief but shall not state the amount of damages to which the pleader deems himself entitled.

Now there are only two possible reasons for a plaintiff to put such a thing in a pleading, given that this law was passed in 2003. First, that the party deliberately violated the law in the quest for press, in the hopes of embarrassing someone with headlines. Second, that the lawyer is ignorant.

While it has never been done before, to my knowledge, the sanction was urged by New York’s late guru of civil practice, Professor David Siegel as a way of enforcing the law against those that willfully violate it.

Finally, if I were writing the brief, I would make damn sure to point out that Trump is a vexatious litigant, and that if the court refuses to sanction then it should expect more of the same. Again. And again. And again.

 

April 2nd, 2016

Deconstructing the Trump Sanction Hoax

Is it April 2nd already?

Is it April 2nd already?

It’s been a number of years now since I’ve run April Fools’ gags. But the time was right to come out of retirement.

For those new to this joint, I ran them from 2008-2012, and had a lot of fun. I do it with a motive. And, as I do here today, I always have a deconstruction the next day, because a gag without a point isn’t much fun to do.

This includes my gig as the official White House Law Blogger, that punked the NY Times, as well as a 23-blog conspiracy the following year that sent readers round in web circles. My first, and one of my favorites, was the time the Supreme Court had three justices recuse themselves in a fantasy baseball case, because they were involved in a high court league themselves.

OK, enough about the past.  Yesterday I took on Donald Trump for his conduct in bringing a frivolous defamation claim that I wrote about last year.

And in doing so, I confess it wasn’t an easy thing to do. Within minutes of the post going up, folks that knew my prior pranks were already hollering that, on this particular day, they wouldn’t believe a word I wrote, no matter what. The passage of four years, it seems, did nothing to diminish my April Fools’ Day reputation.

But the hoax had a point to make (or I wouldn’t do it), and it was rather straightforward: I’ve now been sued twice for defamation for my writings on this blog (Rakofsky and Katz). Both cases were completely frivolous and tossed into the judicial trash can on an immediate motion to dismiss. No discovery, no answer, no nothing, other than my motion to chuck it. But neither judge wanted to go the sanctions route, despite being so clearly warranted.

Such is the judicial culture in New York.

I followed up with an op-ed in the NY Law Journal, calling on the Legislature to approve Anti-SLAPP legislation that was pending. Vacuous suits, and threats of suits, serve to chill free expression. If you are fearful of writing your opinion, or using satire, parody or any other literary device to make a point, then your First Amendment rights have been devalued.

Enter, stage right, Donald Trump and his comments to a Washington Post reporter about a defamation suit he brought (and lost):

Trump said in an interview that he knew he couldn’t win the suit but brought it anyway to make a point. “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”

Add to hit the numbers defamation suits he has brought or threatened (like the recent threat to sue Sen. Ted. Cruz)

And so, when my scheduled depositions on Thursday busted, I had an extra few hours to put on my jester’s hat and make use of our glorious First Amendment by slapping together this “decision” by a judge that sanctioned Trump for a whopping $500M. Who better than the Official White House Law Blogger to write it up?

Trump Free speechThe judge in the hoax, by the way, was Lester Bruce Sullivan, aka, L.B. Sullivan, better known as the guy who helped make First Amendment history by losing an important piece of litigation: New York Times v. Sullivan.

Was that $500M a dumb number? You bet it was. But that was the laughable number that Trump sued for, in order to get headlines. Which it did. So my “judge” thought that was the fitting sanction.

The point of the exercise was to show that, when folks have money, they can stamp on the First Amendment rights of others simply by making “life miserable,” in Trump’s own words.

Unless, of course, the weight of a real sanction makes them weigh that decision more carefully.

The use of sanctions should not be confused with costs or some kind of fee shifting merely because someone has lost. This isn’t an issue, after all, of two sides each saying they had the green light, or two experts in a medical malpractice case disagreeing on the standard of care.

No, this is an entirely different beast: This is about those that deliberately abuse the legal system, even when they know full well beforehand that there is utterly and completely no merit to the claims.

The Legislature should take action: The time to pass the Anti-SLAPP legislation is now.  If, that is, you believe our free speech rights are important.

[Addendum, 4/4, A reader who is on staff in the Assembly has pointed out that the NYS Assembly passed this legislation three times: in 2014, 2015, and 2016. It is the Senate which has not passed it to date.]

My thanks to Paul Alan Levy at Public Citizen and Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice for likewise blogging on the subject to help push the story.

 

April 1st, 2016

Judge Hits Trump for $500M Sanction for Frivolous Defamation Claim

Roof and TrumpRemember that case over the summer where Donald Trump sued Univision when it pulled out of the Miss Universe pageant due to his incendiary remarks about Mexicans? (SummonsAndComplaint)

Well, during that suit, he threw in an idiotic claim for defamation. It was based on the photo you see here of Trump’s mug next to that of mass murderer Dylan Roof, which was put on Instagram by Univision‘s president of programming and content, Alberto Ciurana.

At the time it happened, I ripped the defamation claim to shreds as frivolous. As did Popehat, albeit more colorfully than I (Donald Trump’s Lawyers Don’t Know Or Don’t Care What Defamation Is)

Now, it appears, a New York judge agrees. Even though the case was removed a couple weeks later to federal court, it was filed in New York’s Supreme Court (our main trial level court). And because it was filed there, the court apparently retains jurisdiction over anything that happened while still under its roof.

Most of the suit was about the contract between the parties (the contract was never made public, to my knowledge). But the state court decision here focuses only on the empty defamation claim.

Since statutory sanctions are limited to $10,000 per frivolous claim, or in this case $40,000 in the aggregate due to multiple plaintiffs and defendants, the court has seized on its inherent power to police its own courts. A $40,000 sanction after all, is meaningless to a man that claims to be worth “in excess of $10 billion.”

The court noted, interestingly, Trump’s recent interview with the Washington Post about bringing a lawsuit designed to harass, even though they are losers:

Trump said in an interview that he knew he couldn’t win the suit but brought it anyway to make a point. “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”

Since Trump sued for $500M, the judge figures that must be the right number that will make an impression on someone who claims to be as rich as Trump.

The 13-page decision and order by Acting Justice L.B. Sullivan is here –>  Decision-Order-Trump-Defamation

Trump, it seems, is a walking, talking bar exam question. Every time he does something he opens more cans of legal issues.

Where will this one go?  Obviously up on appeal.

 

Update, seen elsewhere:

Has This Judge Trumped the Donald? (Paul Alan Levy @ Public Citizen)

Does Donald Trump Suddenly Look A Half Billion Thinner? (Greenfield @ Simple Justice)

Update x2:

Deconstructing the Trump Sanction Hoax