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David Nieporent

The AP brings us up to date on the anniversary of Cory Lidle’s death:

By one estimate, more than $63 million worth of lawsuits now trail the estate of Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, seeking compensation for injuries, damages or insurance payouts that followed his plane’s crash into a New York City apartment building.

A year after the wreck, a federal safety panel has concluded that Lidle and his flight instructor died because they misjudged a turn, but the finding has done little to settle the legal fights that now stretch across the country.

According to the article, Lidle’s estate isn’t nearly large enough to pay all the claims against it… unless, of course, Lidle’s widow wins her $100 million lawsuit against the plane’s manufacturer.

(Previous entries: Mar. 2, Apr. 4, May 2).

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NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s lawsuits against out-of-state gun dealers continue in New York City, thanks to Judge Weinstein (see Aug. 27, and links therein), but it’s not all rosy for the mayor. As we previously reported, some of the gun dealers targeted by Bloomberg’s sting are fighting back, and one of them won a victory last month:

Questioning the legality of tactics used by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to sue gun dealers, a federal judge in Atlanta has allowed a defamation suit by a Smyrna, Ga., gun shop against Bloomberg and other New York City officials to go forward.

Although the judge dismissed the Smyrna gun seller’s negligence claims against New York officials, he declared that six of 13 potentially defamatory statements were actionable and cleared the way for a tortious interference with business claim.

[...]

Bloomberg, accompanied by other New York public officials, announced the results of the sting — and the accompanying suit — in May 2006 at a news conference. According to court records in the case, Bloomberg called the gun dealers “a group of bad apples who routinely ignore federal regulations,” and Feinblatt said that the targeted gun dealers had “New Yorkers’ blood on their hands.” Forrester ruled that both of those statements are vulnerable to liability claims.

More importantly, the judge denied Bloomberg’s request to transfer the case to New York, where it would have been heard by Judge Weinstein. (Bloomberg is attempting to get the decision reversed, but for now, the suit against him is active.)

In other gun-related litigation, it seems that Gary, Indiana’s lawsuit against gun manufacturers may continue, despite the fact that Congress passed a law explicitly banning such lawsuits; as in New York City’s war on gun manufacturers, activist judges seem to want to interpret away Congress’s words. (Last week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Manhattan in an appeal of Judge Weinstein’s ruling allowing the city’s lawsuit to proceed. (Earlier: Nov. 2005)

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In the Fall 2006 semester, Brian Marquis got a C in his “Problems in Social Thought” class at the University of Massachusetts. Apparently attempting to prove he learned more about the problems than about the solutions, he immediately proceeded to file a federal class action lawsuit alleging that the school, its trustees, his professor, and various deans violated his constitutional right to get an A.

In a rare case of speedy resolution, it took the court just four months from the time the lawsuit was served on the defendants for the court to dismiss the case; that might have had something to do with the fact that Marquis was proceeding pro se, and drafted a semi-grammatical complaint with no legitimate causes of action. (For instance, he listed a racial discrimination statute as one of his causes of action, despite being white and failing to allege that race played any role in the matter.)

Still, that hardly means the suit was cost-free; as one of the defendants put it, “It ended up just wasting a lot of people’s time and money.” Moreover, Marquis says that he’s thinking of appealing. But lest you think that Marquis just had sour grapes, he had a good reason for filing the suit:

Marquis – who salts his comments with “strike that” – acknowledged he was alarmed the C might lower his grade point average and make him less attractive to a law school.

The C has rendered his transcript a “dismal record of non-achievement,” his suit said. Marquis, who enrolled at UMass-Amherst in spring 2006, said he has roughly a B-plus average.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that “Has a history of filing lawsuits against his school and his professors” on his résumé isn’t actually going to make him more attractive to a law school. (Although his 2004 lawsuit against his previous school didn’t keep him from being admitted to the University of Massachusetts.)

(h/t Kerr @ Volokh)

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For $800,000, one could buy a nice house, two thousand iPhones, about five days’ worth of Alex Rodriguez’s contract, or 1,700 hours of class action lawyers producing absolutely nothing of any value to anybody.

In January 2006, The Smoking Gun reported that James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces memoir had significant inaccuracies. After a few days of denial, Frey admitted that the book was inaccurate. The publisher, Random House, immediately posted a statement to that effect on its website and offered a refund to anybody who was upset. Approximately 12 seconds later, hordes of trial lawyers copied down the allegations from The Smoking Gun’s website and rushed to the courthouse to file “consumer fraud” class action lawsuits against Frey and Random House. They demanded… that Random House post a disclaimer and give refunds to anybody who was upset. In a sane world, those lawyers would have been sanctioned for filing a frivolous lawsuit, and then sanctioned again for wasting everyone’s time by asking for a remedy that had already been achieved.

But as we know, this world is Overlawyered, so, more than 1,700 hours of trial lawyer time later, Random House agreed to settle the case for “up to” $2.35 million, to cover refunds, costs, and attorneys fees for the up-to-3.5 million people who purchased the book before Frey admitted it was inaccurate.

And now the other shoe has dropped, exactly as Walter predicted in May. The deadline for class members to submit their claims was October 1st, and according to filings by the class lawyers, a grand total of 1,345 people had done so by September 17th; based on past experience, they expected another 250 submissions in the last two weeks before the deadline. Yes, that total would be less than one-half of one percent of those who bought the book — the alleged “victims” of the alleged “consumer fraud.”

But despite this dismal response rate, the class action lawyers have now submitted their fee request… $783,333.33 — or one third of the imaginary $2.35 million settlement. Plus $14,000 in expenses. The lawyers defend this fee as reasonable on the grounds that they spent those 1,700 hours preparing their case. (h/t The Smoking Gun) $800,000, and 1,700 hours — for a case where the research was all done by the Smoking Gun before the suit was filed, and the only thing the lawyers had to do was create enough of a nuisance to induce Random House to settle.

For those of you scoring at home, assuming a $15 refund for each claimant, that would be a total recovery of approximately $24,000 for the class members. And $800,000 for the lawyers. Or, in other words, about 3% of the recovery for the consumers, and 97% for the lawyers. Ain’t America grand?

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Fifty years ago, conspiracy theorists could rant in bars, or perhaps write letters to the editor. Twenty years ago, conspiracy theorists could call talk radio. Now? Through the magic of qui tam laws, conspiracy theorists can wage their war against sanity in the courts.

While reading Bizarro-Overlawyered’s paean to 9/11 lawsuits — guess what? They’re not (just) about the money! They’re really about helping the public “know what happened”! — a commenter on the site provided a link to Morgan Reynolds’ 9/11-related lawsuit. Reynolds, a former economist at the Department of Labor, became unhinged sometime after 9/11 and began ranting on the internet about the various conspiracies that brought down the World Trade Center. (Hint: government laser beams from space, not airplanes.) In the past, that would have been the end of it. Even if Reynolds wanted to take legal action, he couldn’t — he wasn’t injured by 9/11, so he would have no standing to file a lawsuit against anybody.

Ah, but that doesn’t take into account the False Claims Act. The qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act allow private individuals to sue on behalf of the government whenever the government is defrauded, and collect a portion of the money owed to the government. So all one needs to do is find a creative legal hook to claim that the government has been cheated, and all of the sudden one has standing to sue. What was Reynolds’ claim? He argues that when the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) — a government agency — prepared its report on the collapse of the World Trade Center, it paid various companies to consult with it. Since none of those consulting companies mentioned the government laser beams from space, they obviously defrauded the government.

So he sued… well, he sued everyone. To be precise, he sued:

Science Applications International Corp.; Applied Research Associates, Inc.; Boeing; Nustats; Computer Aided Engineering Associates, Inc.; Datasource, Inc.; Geostaats, Inc.; Gilsanz Murray Steficek Llp; Hughes Associates, Inc.; Ajmal Abbasi; Eduardo Kausel; David Parks; David Sharp; Daniele Venezano; Josef Van Dyck; Kaspar William; Rolf Jensen & Associates, Inc; Rosenwasser/Grossman Consulting Engineers, P.c.; Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Inc.; S. K. Ghosh Associates, Inc.; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Llp; Teng & Associates, Inc.; Underwriters Laboratories, Inc.; Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.; American Airlines; Silverstein Properties; and United Airlines

Those are engineering firms, airlines, consulting firms, defense contractors, building contractors, and real estate firms. All of which get to deal with his lawsuit. (Will it eventually be dismissed? Yes. Will Reynolds be ordered to pay defendants’ costs? Probably. (Assuming he could afford those costs, which seems unlikely given how many defendants he sued.) But thanks to the notion that private citizens can sue without suffering any injury, it superficially states a valid claim. And, hey, it isn’t that much kookier than the actual 9/11 families who seek to blame the airlines, the World Trade Center, etc. for 9/11. Incidentally, this isn’t one of those wacky pro se lawsuits; Reynolds has an actual lawyer, albeit one who’s also a 9/11 conspiracy theorist.)

(No links in this post; no need to encourage these people. Google if you want to find it.)

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We recently covered the Caterpillar lawsuit, in which an American company was sued because of the way a foreign government used its products. Although the suit was dismissed by the Ninth Circuit, it wasn’t because it’s absurd to blame a manufacturer for how its products are used; rather, it was because — as Walter noted — the Caterpillar products were actually paid for by the U.S. government. Given that, it may not be much comfort to other companies being sued over the actions of foreign governments.

In 2004 and 2005, various Chinese citizens were arrested in China by the government of China, prosecuted for their pro-democracy activities, convicted, and sent to jail. They allege that, while in these Chinese prisons, they have been treated poorly by the Chinese government, and that they have suffered physical and mental anguish as a result.

So, in April of this year, these Chinese prison inmates sued the obviously-responsible party: Yahoo, naturally. In California. They sued Yahoo for violating federal law against torture. And for assault, battery, false imprisonment, unfair competition, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and for violating the U.S. Electronic Communications Privacy Act. In China. What was Yahoo’s wrongdoing? The company — or, rather, its Chinese subsidiary — allegedly provided evidence to the Chinese government which enabled the government to identify these people and prosecute them for breaking Chinese law.

Now, one may have no love for the Chinese government, or for companies that do business in China. One can argue that, ethically, Yahoo should refuse to cooperate with the Chinese government. But those are policy questions, and however one comes down on them, one can’t argue that a federal court in California can order a company to break the laws of another country. (The flaws in this should be readily apparent; as Yahoo notes in its motion to dismiss the case, under the logic of the plaintiffs, “A court in France could issue an injunction mandating that French companies doing business in America refuse to provide evidence in cases where the defendant might be subject to the death penalty.”) One can’t argue that a federal court in California can order a company to get a prisoner released from a Chinese prison (Yes, that’s in the lawsuit.) One can’t argue that a federal court in California can act as an appeals court for a Chinese trial, finding Chinese laws unconstitutional.

Yahoo is seeking to dismiss the case in its entirety. (Washington Post)

(Incidentally, it should go without saying that my introduction was not intended to compare the actions of Israel’s government in fighting terrorism with the actions of China’s government in punishing peaceful dissent. The only parallel here is the attempt to hold an American company responsible for the actions of a foreign government.)

Meanwhile, in other attempts to use the U.S. courts to run world affairs, a group of Bolivians have sued the former president of Bolivia, in the United States, for human rights violations that took place in Bolivia. (Reuters)

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The UC Irvine-Erwin Chemerinsky debacle has been covered extensively in the blogosphere — Walter has a roundup of links over at Point of Law. One thing is for certain, though: regardless of the wisdom of UC Irvine’s actions, it clearly has the right to choose its dean based on any (non-discriminatory) criteria it wants. If the university isn’t happy with Chemerinsky’s ideological viewpoint, it obviously has the right to choose someone more compatible, right?

Well, maybe not, as Eugene Volokh explains. Under the wonders of California employment law, the mere fact that someone has abhorrent views doesn’t give you the right to fire him, and it doesn’t give you the right to decide not to hire him:

In fact, if the statute is read according to its text, coupled with the way the California Supreme Court has interpreted it, then all California employers must retain employees despite their controversial off-the-job statements, even when those statements are incendiary and alienate the employer’s customers, donors, employees, or others.

[...]

So it seems that an employer’s policy (written or not) that it won’t hire or won’t retain employees who make public statements that alienate members of the public — or more specific policies applying to, say, racist statements, religiously bigoted statements, sexist statements, and the like — would be illegal.

Employers would thus not only be barred from firing employees because they are Democrats or Republicans. They would also be barred from refusing to hire Klansmen or people who have made racist, anti-Semitic, or anti-Catholic statements, even when the candidate is being hired for a high-profile public contact or leadership position, and when many of the employer’s customers would be deeply alienated by the person’s statements (past or future).

That one may well fall under a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation; hiring an outspoken Klansmen will expose employers to potential liability for creating a racially hostile work environment.
 
 
 
And as a special employment-law related bonus: the AP explains that companies that might want to try to save money on health insurance by financially incentivizing employees to stay healthy have to worry about HIPAA (if they provide too much in the way of incentives), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (if employees can convince a court that their obesity is a disability).

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Quick multiple choice question: you call the police to report an emergency. Several officers respond. Who do you want supervising these officers?

  1. Smart police officers

  2. Police officers who speak English
  3. Police officers who can choose the right strategy from multiple possibilities
  4. All of the above

Tricked you! The question can’t be answered, because police supervisors shouldn’t have to answer multiple choice questions at all:

Five police officers from Lawrence and Methuen filed a federal civil rights lawsuit yesterday against the two cities and the state, contending that the state promotional exam discriminates against members of minority groups and has prevented their advancement within the ranks.

[...]

They say the multiple-choice format of the test, not the content of the questions, has blocked the rise of minorities, many of whom grew up speaking a different language. They want the state to devise a promotion system that would better reflect the skills used by a police supervisor, instead of how well they answer multiple-choice questions.

Welcome to the world of “disparate impact” litigation, where you don’t have to demonstrate any racism to charge racial discrimination. All you have to do is claim that some groups get promoted less frequently than others, and point out that the employer can’t really prove that his standards are necessary for the job. You know, like speaking English…

“I think this exam is really outdated,” said Cano, who scored a 78 in 2006. “For me, a person whose native language is Spanish, it’s a challenge. The questions are extremely complicated.”

…or dealing with “complicated” situations. The complaints don’t even have to make sense:

Kevin Sledge, 45, a patrolman in Lawrence for 14 years, said the test favors those who have more practice taking written exams. He took the exam last year for the first time, scoring a 76, but was passed over for others who scored higher.

“Some people are more practical and verbal, and those are important skills to be a police supervisor,” he said.

Whereas multiple choice questions don’t test either practical or verbal skills? Well, I guess if you see an emergency, you can just call a lawyer instead. (H/T John Rosenberg)

(Past Overlawyered fun with civil service exams: Mar. 2005, Apr. 2006, Jan 2007, Aug. 1, others.)

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Imus lawsuit: nevermind

by David Nieporent on September 12, 2007

Kia Vaughn, the Rutgers basketball player who filed a defamation lawsuit against Don Imus over his “nappy headed hos” comment, has withdrawn her suit:

Vaughn’s attorney, Richard B. Ancowitz, said in a statement yesterday that the junior from the Bronx decided not to pursue the suit so she could focus on academics and training for the upcoming season. Rutgers, which made it to the NCAA championship game last season, is expected to be one of the top teams in the country.

“Her strong commitments to both (academics and basketball) have influenced her decision to withdraw the suit at this time,” Ancowitz said in the statement. “We feel that we have made a strong and important statement against such hateful speech with the filing of this lawsuit.”

Translation: “Whoops. This case might be a little harder to win than I thought.”

I think the Overlawyered discussion thread (Aug. 15) about the case lasted longer than the lawsuit.

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Nifong/Lacrosse update

by David Nieporent on September 7, 2007

Former Durham prosecutor Mike Nifong, railroader of the Duke Lacrosse 3, was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to one day in jail; this punishment is for lying to the trial court about the existence of DNA evidence. He reported to jail today to serve his sentence. He has already been disbarred, of course.

Next to come is the players’ civil suit, though that money is unfortunately going to come from the taxpayers of Durham rather than from Nifong. The players are attempting to negotiate a settlement before filing their suit; they’re reportedly seeking $30 million, plus changes to the legal process to allegedly prevent the district attorney from hijacking a police investigation the way Nifong did. They intend to file suit within a month if the city doesn’t settle. (AP, Herald-Sun)

And then there’s this little tidbit:

Durham’s Police Department, which helped Nifong secure the indictments, has also come under criticism. A special committee probing police handling of the case stopped working last month, however, because the city’s liability insurance provider warned that the committee’s conclusions could provide material for lawsuits.

At this point, if we were Bizarro-Overlawyered I’d be rambling about “Profits over People” or something, but since we’re not, I’ll just point out that it simply demonstrates the perverse incentives of the legal system and its unbounded discovery rules. As long as everything you put on paper can be used against you — even in hindsight — then the incentive is not to put it on paper. (Of course, I’m not suggesting that the specific wrongdoing in Durham was only obvious in hindsight; people like K.C. Johnson figured it out right away. But the incentives are the same in every case.)

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Updates – September 7

by David Nieporent on September 7, 2007

Some updates to earlier stories we’ve covered:

  • Spyware maker Zango, which embarked on a strategy of suing all the anti-spyware vendors that were calling its products spyware, has dropped its lawsuit against PC Tools, the maker of Spyware Doctor. (We covered the filing of the lawsuit on May 23.) Presumably it chose to drop the suit because it just lost a similar one against Kapersky Lab, with a federal court ruling that antispyware companies’ decisions of this sort are protected from suit.

    Eric Goldman has the details, including links to all the relevant decisions.

  • We reported on August 21st on the “crackpot” libel suit against blogger PZ Myers for an unflattering book review. Stuart Pivar, who filed the suit to great derision in the blogosphere, apparently dropped the suit a week later. (Even if the suit had legal merit, it was filed in the wrong court, so dismissal was just bowing to the inevitable; in theory, Pivar could refile in the appropriate court, but after the way constitutional law professor Peter Irons dissected the complaint, I think Myers ought to feel safe.) Free hint to readers: defamation lawsuits are almost always a bad idea. All they do is provide publicity to the very claims one is trying to suppress. Defamation lawsuits against prominent bloggers are even less sensible.
  • Two years ago, the Illinois Supreme Court put an end to one of the more fraudulent “consumer fraud” lawsuits ever filed, a $10 billion lawsuit against Philip Morris for marketing “light” cigarettes in accordance with federal guidelines. But even though the state’s highest court ordered the case to be dismissed, Madison County repeat offender Steve Tillery went back to a local court run by notorious Judge Nicholas Byron and tried to reopen the lawsuit. Finally, last month the Illinois Supreme Court definitively slapped down Tillery, telling Byron to dismiss the case.

    (Overlawyered’s sister site Point of Law has been covering this case.)

We’ve covered many of Michigan trial lawyer Geoffrey Fieger’s antics and legal troubles here on Overlawyered over the years; his most recent problems include being censured in Arizona and being criminally indicted for illegal campaign contributions.

But he may have managed to wriggle out of punishment for at least one of his shenanigans: his 1999 radio tirade in which he labelled as Nazis the judges who ruled against his client. He was sanctioned by the Michigan courts for this conduct, with the Michigan Supreme Court upholding the discipline against his first amendment challenge in Aug. 2006 (Yes, that’s seven years after the incident.)

But this week, a federal court bought Fieger’s first amendment argument, holding that the rules under which he was sanctioned were unconstitutional.

The rules say lawyers must treat everyone involved in the legal process with “courtesy and respect” and should “not engage in undignified or discourteous conduct” toward the bench.

In the decision released late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow said “the rules are unconstitutional on their face because they are both overly broad and vague.”

If we were snide, we might note that it could say something about Fieger that he couldn’t figure out that calling someone a Nazi is not dignified or respectful. We were amused at the Court’s reasoning for why Fieger had standing to challenge these rules:

The likelihood that Plaintiff Fieger may again say something negative about a Michigan court that could subject him to further punishment under the courtesy provisions is not the attenuated situation presented in Grendell. Plaintiff Fieger is a vocal, often harsh, and at times vulgar critic of Michigan’s judiciary.

You don’t say.

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We’ve been covering the exploits of professional ADA plaintiff Jarek Molski and his lawyer Thomas Frankovich for a long time now (See Aug. 3, Mar. 23, many others). When last we checked, Molski/Frankovich were appealing a federal judge’s finding in Molski v. Evergreen Dynasty Corp. that they were vexatious litigants; the designation meant that they couldn’t file any more ADA lawsuits in the Central District of California without first getting permission from the court.

Last week, the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion (PDF) which upheld the finding in its entirety. The only quirky part of the case was that it was likely that many of the establishments sued by Molski/Frankovich at least technically probably had violated the ADA by not complying with its vague, onerous requirements. But the Ninth Circuit had no problem getting beyond that:

Frivolous litigation is not limited to cases in which a legal claim is entirely without merit. It is also frivolous for a claimant who has some measure of a legitimate claim to make false factual assertions. Just as bringing a completely baseless claim is frivolous, so too a person with a measured legitimate claim may cross the line into frivolous litigation by asserting facts that are grossly exaggerated or totally false.

And for some reason, neither the District Court nor the Ninth Circuit were impressed with Molski’s factual assertions:

However, it is very unlikely that Molski suffered the same injuries, often multiple times in one day, performing the same activities—transferring himself from his wheelchair to the toilet or negotiating accessibility obstacles. Common sense dictates that Molski would have figured out some way to avoid repetitive injury-causing activity; even a young child who touches a hot stove quickly learns to avoid pain by not repeating the conduct.

The Ninth Circuit was not any more complimentary towards Frankovich:

When a client stumbles so far off the trail, we naturally should wonder whether the attorney for the client gave inadequate or improper advice.

The court also found significant that Frankovich may well have broken legal ethics rules by trying to intimidate defendants into settling without hiring lawyers and giving them (bad) legal advice.

This isn’t necessarily the end for Molski/Frankovich. The vexatious litigant order applies only to the federal courts — in fact, only the federal courts in the Central District of California — and does not prevent them from filing suit; it only requires them to seek permission of the court first.

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We’ve provided extensive coverage of the Kentucky fen-phen scandal, in which the lawyers who represented fen-phen plaintiffs were found in a civil suit to have misappropriated more than $64 million of their clients’ money. The judge who heard the suit has now entered final judgment against the lawyers, which will allow the plaintiffs to start collection proceedings in 30 days, barring appeal by the lawyers. (The good news: to appeal, they would need to put up an appeals bond, which would make it easier for the plaintiffs to collect. It’s not clear whether they’re going to appeal; they may be too busy defending themselves against the criminal charges which have been filed against them.)

The lawyers’ lawyer calls it a “travesty of justice,” and offers an unusual defense to charges of defrauding clients:

“No one, including the judge, has acknowledged that the attorneys’ fees were ordered by a judge or the fact that each and every client in the case received multiples, and I repeat multiples, of any amount that they would have received if they had not been represented by my clients — Bill and Shirley.”

Since the lawyers did a good job in achieving the initial settlement, it’s okay for them to defraud their clients of some of the money? Pretty sure it doesn’t work that way. (And of course, in claiming that the fees were “ordered by a judge,” she somehow neglects to mention the fact that the judge was paid off by the lawyers, and that as a result he quit just before he was going to be kicked off the bench.)

The only thing growing faster than the number of videos being shown on Youtube is the number of lawsuits arising from videos being shown on Youtube. The company itself has been sued by every media company in the known universe — led by Viacom — over copyright infringement by users of the website. And when Youtube isn’t being sued, the people who post the offending or infringing clips are.

A few weeks ago, a couple of college students posted a juvenile rap video about their work in a supermarket produce department. They filmed the video in the A&P supermarket where they were employed stocking shelves, but they never mentioned or displayed the A&P name. No matter; someone figured it out, and they were fired.

That could have been the end of that… except that A&P got the brilliant idea to file a $1,000,000 lawsuit against the two, for defamation. (Just a guess, but unless A&P pays a lot better than I suspect, they may not be good for the money.) And, shockingly, the video, which had just 2,500 hits earlier this week before the lawsuit, now has been viewed 60,000 times. Wonder who thought that this lawsuit was a good idea.

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When lawyers fight

by David Nieporent on August 28, 2007

At least we can be sure that lawyers don’t treat each other any better than they treat other parties in litigation. Texas Lawyer provides us with a story of how two plaintiffs lawyers, who started out on the same side of a class action suit, managed to turn a dispute amongst themselves over $28,000 in fees into an eleven year fight with an ultimate award of over $250,000.

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No matter how absurd a lawsuit is, the plaintiff usually has an elaborate, ingenuous theory to explain why he deserves to be compensated for injuries caused in some convoluted, indirect way by the nefarious defendant, and the obligatory disclaimer about the case “not being about the money” is usually tacked on. Usually. And then there’s James Schlimpert, president of Oklahoma-based Garage Storage Cabinets LLC.

When asked why he brought a suit against a competitor (Don Mitchell/MGCS) for misappropriation of trade secrets and tortious interference with his company’s dealer contracts, he explained, forthrightly:

When deposed, GSC President John Schlimpert testified that his company held no trade secrets, had no exclusive dealer contracts, and had filed the lawsuit for the sole purpose of putting MGCS out of business.

“I am amazed in some respects that the plaintiff said that, and he said it more than once, said his purpose was to put them out of business,” reads the court record issued by the District Court of Payne County, Honorable Larry Brooks, judge. “I think, under the plaintiff’s stated purpose, he was bringing it just to be vexatious to the defendants. I think it’s vexatious litigation.”

Wow. Still, for anybody who wasn’t already convinced by the Roy Pearson case, the history of the suit illustrates the difficulty courts have in protecting defendants from frivolous suits.

Because the complaint, on its face, seemingly stated legitimate causes of action, the only way for Mitchell to establish that the suit was frivolous was to conduct discovery and take the deposition of the plaintiff. Then Mitchell had to get lucky; if Schlimpert hadn’t foolishly admitted the fraudulent nature of his suit, the court would almost certainly treated the suit as legitimate. (Mitchell could still have won, but wouldn’t have gotten sanctions.) Once Mitchell got lucky, he had to make a motion to the court to have the case thrown out.

Then, after having the case thrown out, Mitchell had to make a separate application to the court for sanctions — he actually botched this procedure, but the court let the issue slide — and then had to participate in a hearing to try to establish how much those sanctions should be. All of that cost more money, more attorneys fees, with no guarantee that these costs would be recouped. Indeed, in this case Mitchell asked for $49,300, and the judge awarded only $31,500, because Schlimpert was successful in finding an expert witness to convince the judge that the lower number should have been sufficient to beat his frivolous case.

Moreover, the judge refused to penalize the plaintiff’s lawyer, finding that just because Schlimpert was acting in bad faith didn’t mean his lawyer was.

And then, after all that, Schlimpert appealed. Finally, this month, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s decision. And now Mitchell has to go back to the trial court, after having spent another $8,000 on the appeal, and has to hope the judge will make him whole.

P.S. In case you were wondering: this suit was filed in May 2003. It took 17 months from the time the suit was filed until the time the judge ruled in favor of Mitchell. It took another 17 months for the judge to award sanctions to Mitchell. After Schlimpert appealed, it took yet another 17 months for the appeals court to rule. In other words, more than four years elapsed. But — as mentioned — it’s still not over, because now Mitchell has to return to the trial court, to be awarded fees because of Schlimpert’s appeal.

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Last year, New York City Mayor Bloomberg filed federal lawsuits against bunches of gun stores across the country; we’ve covered these suits extensively. (See, e.g. May 2006, Jun. 2006, Sep. 2006). NYC sent people to stores in places such as Georgia, Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina; these city agents then conducted “stings” in which they made supposedly illegal firearms purchases. Bloomberg then sued these stores, claiming that the guns were ending up in New York City and that the stores should for some reason be liable for this.

Somehow, despite the fact that whatever illegal sales took place did so in Georgia, Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina, the suit ended up in the Brooklyn courtroom of federal Judge Jack Weinstein, the man who has never seen a products liability case he couldn’t endorse. The gun stores moved to dismiss the suits on the grounds that New York courts have no jurisdiction.

Last week, Weinstein rejected the gun stores’ motion in a 99 page opinion (PDF) replete with anti-gun rhetoric (about criminals who “terrorize” the city and descriptions of guns as “Saturday Night Specials”) and citations to his own decisions in previous gun-litigation cases (Jul. 2003) So the suits will continue; a trial date has been set for January.

Republican presidential-non-candidate Fred Thompson doesn’t think much more of these suits than we do.

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