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watch what you say about lawyers

Watch what you say about lawyers dept.: The high-profile mass tort firm of Napoli Bern Ripka and Associates LLP recently filed a defamation suit in Suffolk County, N.Y. against ex-client Scott Spielberg, a former cab driver who lives in Nevada.

The firm claims that Mr. Spielberg defamed the firm when he wrote to the office of the Manhattan district attorney asking prosecutors to open an investigation into what Mr. Spielberg alleges is the firm’s mishandling of earlier litigation involving the diet drug fen-phen.

The lawsuit also claims that Mr. Spielberg slandered the firm in conversations he had with a New York Times reporter, Anthony DePalma, who wrote a lengthy article about the involvement of a name partner at the firm, Paul Napoli, in the fen-phen litigation.

Yet, Mr. DePalma’s article doesn’t quote Mr. Spielberg or mention him at all. Napoli Bern is representing the vast majority of thousands of ground zero workers in their suits alleging that the city failed to protect them from toxins at the site that have caused respiratory and other illnesses. …

“They don’t want me to be able to talk to the press or law enforcement,” Mr. Spielberg said of the suit against him.

(Joseph Goldstein, “Seeking To Cut Off Criticism, Law Firm Sues Former Client”, New York Sun, Jun. 6).

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The Troll Tracker blog is down shortly after (or before?) a lawsuit filed by a plaintiffs’ attorney and son of federal judge T. John Ward, Jr. sued the blogger and his employer, Cisco, over a post critical of Ward and attorney Eric Albritton. [Prior Art blog via ATL] I couldn’t find the complaint on-line, but I’ll track it down over the weekend. Earlier: Feb. 26; earlier in the series.

February 11 roundup

by Walter Olson on February 11, 2008

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Watch what you say about lawyers, a continuing feature: the blog Troll Tracker has been critical of firms that make a practice of buying up patent rights to sue on them. Now co-founder Ray Niro of the Chicago plaintiffs firm Niro, Scavone, Haller & Niro is threatening to sue Troll Tracker for alleged infringement of a patent on a technique sometimes used in web graphics, JPEG decompression. (If a website posts graphics at all, there is a good chance that it is in similar violation of this asserted patent.) Niro also wants the anonymous blawger’s identity unmasked and is offering a bounty toward that end. (TrollTracker, Dec. 4; John Bringardner, “A Bounty of $5,000 to Name Troll Tracker”, IP Law & Business, Dec. 4; via Ambrogi, who appends an extensive list of blogs commenting on the story).

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The high-profile Los Angeles attorney, who’s made frequent appearances in these pages, is headed to federal prison following his conviction for tax evasion, money laundering and bankruptcy fraud (see Jun. 24). U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson chided Yagman for testimony “so transparently untrue in so many areas.” (Scott Glover, “Attorney Yagman sentenced to 3 years for tax evasion, fraud”, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 28). Best known for his lawsuits against police departments, the much-criticized Yagman has also represented the principals in a famous Americans with Disabilities Act filing mill that launches mass complaints against small businesses and settles them for cash (Mar. 18, 2005; Nov. 4, 2006). According to the L.A. Times account, he “twice was suspended by the state bar for charging clients ‘unconscionable’ fees.” When a retired police sergeant sent him a letter expressing “glee” over his indictment, Yagman promptly sued him (Jan. 5, 2006). Norm Pattis (Nov. 29) reflects: “I wonder whether Yagman became a Leona Helmsley-type figure. The law is for little people, he appears to have thought.”

“Threatened with a potential defamation suit, two individuals have apparently retracted their claimed characterization of a Spokane, Wash.-area law firm formerly known as ‘Wetzel & Wetzel’ as ‘Weasel & Weasel.’” Jim MacDonald, president of the Bayview, Idaho Chamber of Commerce, “read a letter of contrition” at the chamber’s regular monthly meeting “as demanded” by the offended lawyers. Does this mean we’re going to get in trouble with our earlier references to Cruel & Boring, We’ll Getcha & Mangle Ya, Huge Cupboards of Greed, etc.? (Martha Neil, ABA Journal, Oct. 25; Herb Huseland, “Bayview News: Law firm claims slander”, Spokane Statesman-Review, Oct. 25).

P.S. Australian lawyer Stumbling Tumblr adds, “there’s no indication in the story whether weasels had also threatened proceedings”.

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A month ago St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan wrote a less-than-respectful column reporting on the course of a controversial defamation suit filed by disbarred local attorney Amiel Cueto. Now Cueto has notified McClellan that he regards him as having acted as an “agent” of the defendant in the suit, the Madison-St. Clair Record, and he’s threatening him with compulsory process as a witness. McClellan, whom Overlawyered readers will remember as having been the target of appalling legal bullying from Metro-East plaintiff’s lawyers in the past, retains his cheerful tone in a new column. (Bill McClellan, “Amiel Cueto has a gift, or maybe he doesn’t”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 31; “Accusations, lawsuit make me nostalgic”, Sept. 30).

The underlying action arose from an item that ran in the U.S. Chamber-supported Madison-St. Clair Record on Jan. 30, 2006, alleging that Cueto, who served six years in prison on an obstruction of justice conviction, had been spied at a meeting of St. Clair County judges. “Once one of the most powerful lawyers in Southern Illinois, Cueto was said to have ‘owned’ fifteen of St. Clair County’s seventeen judges in the mid-1990s,” the column further asserted. Cueto sued the paper, in a hard-fought action currently in process. In other actions, as Ted noted Feb. 26, Cueto has sued the Illinois Civil Justice League and its political action committee over a campaign ad, and a local resident over a letter to the editor in the Belleville, Ill. News-Democrat (Malcolm Gay, “Power Broken”, Riverfront Times, Sept. 5; Ann Knef, “Amiel Cueto takes aim at ICJL”, Madison-St. Clair Record, Feb. 20; ICJL, Dec. 4, 2006).

Updates – June 20

by David Nieporent on June 20, 2007

Updating a few earlier stories we’ve discussed here…

  • Two weeks ago we noted that a new online attorney rating site, Avvo.com, was being threatened with a lawsuit by John Henry Browne, a disgruntled Seattle criminal defense attorney. (Jun. 10). Well, whatever the merits or weaknesses of Browne as an attorney, one thing you can say about him is that he doesn’t make idle threats; last week, he filed suit against Avvo. The suit, designated a class action, contends that Avvo’s ratings are flawed. From all accounts, that’s almost certainly true, but as I mentioned in my previous post, it’s not clear that this presents a valid cause of action; Avvo is entitled to rank lawyers differently than John Henry Browne wants them to. In an attempt to get around this problem, the complaint trots out various “consumer protection” arguments using notoriously vague and broad statutes that don’t require that the plaintiffs identify any consumers who have been harmed. (Illustrating perfectly the phenomenon Ted discussed on Jun. 18).

    Oh yes, and Browne also claims in the complaint that “at least two clients” of his fired him (in less than a week!) because of his “average” rating on Avvo. Let’s just say I’m rather skeptical of Mr. Browne’s ability to prove such a claim.

    The law firm handling this class action case? Overlawyered multiple repeat offender Hagens Berman. (Many links.)

  • Remember that lawsuit where Illinois Chief Justice Robert Thomas sued the Kane County Chronicle for defamation? (Apr. 2, Nov. 2006) Well, when last we heard, the libel award — originally an absurd $7 million — had been reduced to $4 million by the trial judge. Not surprisingly, the Chronicle still is unsatisfied, and does not feel it can get a fair shake from the very Illinois court system headed by Thomas; it has now filed a federal lawsuit claiming its constitutional rights have been violated. Named in the suit are Thomas, the trial judge who heard the case, and the rest of Thomas’s colleagues on the state Supreme Court.
  • Kellogg’s bows to threats of frivolous litigation coming from the Center for “Science” in the “Public Interest”; agrees to limit advertising of its cereals to children.

    Of course, this is portrayed as an issue of advertising, but as Michael Jacobson of CSPI admits, this litigation strategy is simply an attempt to drive products he disapproves of from the market. And now that Kellogg’s has capitulated, certain politicians are trying to force other companies to do the same.

    Originally: Jan. 2006.

  • We had previously reported (May 17) that the unfair competition lawsuit between Equal and Splenda had settled. Turns out that the two sides are still fighting, with each side accusing the other of reneging on the deal. (LI)

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“Massachusetts’ highest court on Monday upheld a $2 million verdict against the Boston Herald won by a state Superior Court judge who said the newspaper libelously depicted him as soft on crime and insensitive to the suffering of a 14-year-old rape victim.” Better be careful what you say about Judge Ernest Murphy in future. (AP coverage; Romenesko first, second posts; Dan Kennedy, Media Nation; Childs). Earlier coverage: Dec. 8 and Dec. 23, 2005.

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This week, Roy Pearson, the Judge With the Missing Pants, has replaced Duke Lacrosse prosecutor Mike Nifong as the symbol of lawyers run amok in the United States. And after hearing the story of Pearson’s lawsuit, approximately 65 million people — one for every dollar Pearson is demanding — have asked me in exasperation what it takes for a lawyer to get disciplined in this country. Well, perhaps one reason it’s so difficult to discipline an attorney can be illustrated by a case handed down on Thursday in the Ninth Circuit, involving an attorney named Richard Canatella. Mr. Canatella has a rather… spotty disciplinary history. As described by the California State Bar:

Canatella stipulated to filing numerous frivolous actions in courts in San Mateo, San Francisco, and Santa Clara county courts, as well as in the California Court of Appeal and federal district and appeals courts.

[...]

Canatella’s involvement in nine other matters also was the subject of discipline.

Sanctions were ordered against him or his clients 37 times. Courts repeatedly found him responsible for frivolous, meritless and vexatious actions. Sanctions totalled more than $18,000 in one matter, and the opposing parties were granted all fees and costs in another.

In one case, a federal judge said, “This complaint is a paradigm for ‘frivolous.’” Wrote another federal jurist: “Plaintiff’s repeated attempt to challenge the sanctions and judgments . . . in the face of clear authority that his claim is frivolous evidences his bad faith and wrongful purpose.”

So what did Canatella do? You guessed it: he sued the California Bar and various Bar officials for publishing this disciplinary record online, claiming that it violated his civil rights. The California Appellate Report elaborates:

You’d probably freak out too if that’s what they said about you. Mind you, Cantanella offers the following defense (?) of his conduct in his second amended complaint, and alleges that he was not actually sanctioned 37 times, but was instead “investigated” for 47 “purported sanction orders” over a nine year period and was sanctioned on at least 26 “separate” occasions by federal and state courts between 1989 and 1998. Once you hear that, by the way, do you think the judges have a pretty good sense regarding whether Cantanella’s a particularly sympathetic figure? Or, perhaps, think — shockingly — that a person sanctioned this pervasively is precisely the type of person who would file the present action?

Not surprisingly, Canatella lost his suit. So, showing the same level of sense that got him sanctioned all those times, he appealed. He lost again, in the decision handed down yesterday.

This wasn’t the first suit he filed against the Bar, by the way.

So, it’s not hard to see why state bar officials may be a little cautious in disciplining attorneys.

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April 27 roundup

by Ted Frank on April 27, 2007

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The anti-game attorney cites reader comments on the Gawker site Kotaku that he considers personally threatening. (GamePolitics.com, Apr. 25; Kotaku, Apr. 23; earlier Kotaku post). Mark Methinitis at Law of the Game says that in his view the complaint “falls well beyond the norm of complaint drafting and more into the realm of a self-promoting tirade” (Apr. 25).

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April 24 roundup

by Ted Frank on April 24, 2007

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Watch what you say about judges dept.: former Illinois judge Gordon Maag has dropped the $110 million defamation lawsuit he had filed against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other defendants over campaign flyers he claimed were false and unfair. An appeals court in November upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the suit, and the Illinois Supreme Court declined to revive it. (Ann Knef, “Gordon Maag drops $110 million defamation suit”, Madison County Record, Apr. 12). Earlier: Dec. 23, 2004; Feb. 6 and Nov. 6, 2006.

February 26 roundup

by Ted Frank on February 26, 2007

  • High-school basketball player gets TRO over enforcement of technical foul after pushing referee. [Huntington News; Chad @ WaPo]
  • Madison County court rejects Vioxx litigation tourism. [Point of Law]
  • Faking disability for accommodation disqualifies bar applicant [Frisch]
  • DOJ antitrust enforcement doesn’t seem to be consistent with U.S. trade policy position. [Cafe Hayek]
  • Professor falsely accused of sexual harassment wins defamation lawsuit against former plaintiff, but too late to save his job. [Kirkendall]
  • Watch what you say dept.: Disbarred attorney and ex-felon sues newspaper, letter-to-editor writer, Illinois Civil Justice League. (His brother won the judicial election anyway.) [Madison County Record; Belleville News Democrat; US v. Amiel Cueto]

Kentucky trial lawyers just won’t let up in their po-faced indignation about that innocuous cartoon in the state bar magazine (see Feb. 15 roundup). “‘The cartoon exhibits an indifference to the rights of all Kentuckians to access the justice system — the very system the KBA is charged with preserving on behalf of its members and their clients,’ Bowling Green lawyer Steve Downey, the immediate past president of the trial lawyer group, said in a letter to the bar association.” (Andrew Wolfson, “Trial lawyers find nothing funny in cartoon”, Louisville Courier-Journal, Feb. 19). David Lat covers the story (Feb. 20). What would have taken guts, I think, is for the Kentucky bar magazine to have run a cartoon making reference to the state’s deeply embarrassing fen-phen fee scandal. But let’s not hold our breath waiting for that.

Reacting to the recent case in which a jury awarded Illinois chief justice Robert Thomas $7 million against a suburban newspaper, the Kane County Chronicle (Jun. 22, Jul. 19, Nov. 3, Nov. 7, Nov. 14, Nov. 19). the New York Times recalls a 1983 case in which “a Supreme Court justice in Pennsylvania sued The Philadelphia Inquirer for defamation. The case was finally dismissed this summer — a full 23 years after it began. … [Reporter Daniel R.] Biddle, who is now an editor at The Inquirer, said he had learned through lawyers that some of the biggest law firms in Philadelphia declined to represent the paper, in part ‘because they were afraid’ that fighting a Supreme Court justice might jeopardize their other clients.” (Katharine Q. Seelye, “Clash of a Judge and a Small Paper Underlines the Tangled History of Defamation”, New York Times, Nov. 20). More: Mar. 16, 2004. The Times piece also discusses a lawsuit’s silencing of the Alton Telegraph, which once was an outspoken voice in Madison County, Illinois; Ted covered that episode on Point of Law Dec. 28, 2004.

So how exactly do you build a case for high damages when the alleged defamation (see Jun. 22) hasn’t dislodged you from the bench and it will be a good long while before your term expires? Well, your lawyer can talk about how you were thinking of stepping down to become a highly paid rainmaker at a Chicago law firm, and so maybe the defendant newspaper should have to compensate you for what your hired economist says is the value of that. Besides, you were thinking of securing an appointment as a federal judge. And what if the Illinois voters decide to throw you out down the road — isn’t the lost salary from that something the defendant should have to pay you for, too? (Eric Herman, “Justice’s libel suit figures his losses”, Chicago Sun-Times, Jun. 10)(via Lattman).