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N.Y. Judge Files $10 Million Defamation Suit Against Attorney, NewspaperA Brooklyn judge has filed an unusual $10 million defamation suit against attorney Ravi Batra and the New York Daily News. Justice Larry D. Martin's suit alleges that Batra was the source of two Daily News columns and related blog postings falsely accusing the judge of improperly presiding over a case involving a lawyer who had defended him before a judicial conduct commission. The judge claims the articles were "grossly irresponsible" and show an indifference to his "rights and reputation."
New York Law Journal2008-05-05 12:00:00 AM
A Brooklyn judge has filed an unusual $10 million defamation suit against attorney Ravi Batra and the New York Daily News.
The suit, Martin v. Daily News, 100053/08, filed earlier this year in Manhattan Supreme Court by Justice Larry D. Martin, alleges that Batra was the source of two Daily News columns and related blog postings falsely accusing the judge of improperly presiding over a case involving a lawyer who had defended him before the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Martin maintains that Batra "requested and urged" Daily News columnist Errol Louis to publish "defamatory statements" about him. He claims the articles were "outrageous, grossly irresponsible, malicious and evinced a complete and utter indifference" to his "rights and reputation."
Both Batra and the Daily News have filed motions to dismiss.
On Jan. 28, 2007, Louis wrote that the "complicated world of judicial corruption in Brooklyn -- a snakepit filled with bribery and back-room political deals" -- was on the verge of being "blown wide open."
He cited an action brought by Batra, relating to Singer v. Riskin, 015812/01, an ongoing multimillion-dollar real estate dispute between Batra's clients, Martin and Grace Riskin, and Ted Singer. That dispute has spawned 11 lawsuits.
In November 2006, Batra filed Riskin v. Karp, 34131/06, on behalf of his clients against attorney Jerome M. Karp. The suit alleges Karp represented Singer "in secret" in Riskin v. Belinda, 048555/98, a mortgage foreclosure action and offshoot of Singer v. Riskin.
Batra alleged that Karp's failure to disclose his representation of Singer in Belinda, over which Martin presided, created an undisclosed conflict since Karp had served as the judge's attorney before the judicial conduct commission.
The commission, in a determination issued in December 2001 and modified in June 2002, admonished Martin for sending ex parte letters seeking favorable consideration on behalf of defendants awaiting sentencing in other courts.
Batra alleged in Riskin v. Karp that Karp's representation of Martin during 2000 and 2001 rendered Karp unable to act as Singer's undisclosed attorney from July 25, 2000, to "the present time."
Batra maintained that this representation violated the "core holding" of Matter of Huttner 2, a 2005 decision in which the judicial conduct commission censured Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Richard D. Huttner.
Karp represented Huttner in that matter, in which the judge was faulted for failing to disclose his "close social relationship" with Batra in the Cypress Hill Cemetery litigation, which was pending before him. The judge, who often dined and socialized with Batra, had appointed Batra as fiduciary in 11 matters and as counsel to receiver in Cypress Hill.
Nancy Ledy-Gurren of Ledy-Gurren Bass & Siff, who represents Karp in Riskin v. Karp, said in an e-mail last week that Batra's case against her client is "frivolous and substantively without any merit."
She wrote that Karp represented Martin in a single matter, beginning in late 2000 and ending in August 2002. She added that Karp does not have and has never had a social relationship with Martin.
She said Karp's involvement in Belinda, over which Martin presided, was limited to a single letter he wrote at the request of Singer, who wanted to intervene in the litigation. She said Karp was "a third party respected by both sides, to try and get settlement talks started."
Nothing came of the letter, and "there was no further connection or knowledge of the controversy on Mr. Karp's part," Ledy-Gurren wrote.
Stuart A. Blander of Heller, Horowitz & Feit, who represents Martin in his libel action, said that Singer withdrew his motion to intervene in the Belinda action shortly after making the request. At that point, he said that Martin had not retained Karp for the judicial conduct matter and had no attorney-client relationship with him.
He said that Singer's only current connection with the Belinda foreclosure action related to a "lingering" sanctions motion that Batra brought on behalf of Riskin.
Despite Batra's allegations of a conflict, no formal motion was made for Martin to recuse himself in Belinda, although the judge did deny an oral application for recusal made in 2005, Blander said.
Citing Batra's Riskin v. Karp lawsuit, Louis wrote in his January 2007 column that Karp gave "legal advice" to Singer without disclosing that he had "once represented Supreme Court Justice Larry Martin, the judge hearing the multimillion-dollar case."
The column later stated that Karp's representation of Singer and the judge occurred "simultaneously."
On Feb. 8, 2007, in a follow-up Daily News piece, Louis wrote that Martin is "in the hot seat again" for allegedly overseeing a case involving his "personal lawyer."
In his February column, Louis mistakenly referred to Riskin v. Belinda as Singer v. Riskin.
According to Blander, Martin's attorney, the judge "had nothing to do with Singer v. Riskin," which is before Brooklyn Judge Michael A. Ambrosio. Martin was assigned to the smaller foreclosure action Riskin v. Belinda, Blander said.
When readers pointed out Louis' error on the newspaper's blog, "The Daily Politics," he clarified the case caption but stuck by his claim that the judge should have recused himself from Belinda.
"It's clear as a bell and you know it," Louis wrote.
Batra then suggested in a related blog posting that skeptics should take a trip to the Brooklyn courthouse, if they had doubts about the accuracy of Louis' February column. Batra contended that he had an obligation to remedy readers' "sloppy" misconceptions, particularly where "fraud upon the court is afoot!"
In his suit against the Daily News, Louis and Batra, Martin maintains that the articles and blog postings got the facts wrong on a number of counts.
The judge says that he never presided over Singer v. Riskin, and argues that Karp was not an attorney of record in the proceeding.
Martin also contends the newspaper and blog posts gave readers the false impression that Karp currently represented the judge, when he had not been his attorney for "more than five years."
Martin pegs Batra as the "source" of the misinformation. He claims Louis' columns, which were "widely read and discussed by the public," the "legal community" at large, family and friends, including his church group, "brought him into public scandal and disrepute."
In his motion to dismiss, Batra denies he provided the Daily News with a copy of his lawsuit against Karp. But he adds that even if he did, his alleged statements, made in his "capacity" as the Riskins' attorney, are protected under Civil Rights Law §74, which grants absolute immunity from civil suit for the publication of "a fair and true report of any judicial proceeding."
"[T]here is universal agreement that the columns are based upon the verified complaint previously filed in Riskin v. Karp -- and are substantially accurate portrayals of the same," Batra claims in an affidavit filed in support of his motion to dismiss.
Batra also claims his statements could not have defamed Martin, since they "are not even about the plaintiff -- but about Jerome Karp." Batra has requested attorney fees and sanctions against Martin and his counsel.
In papers filed with the court, the Daily News admits Louis erred in his Feb. 8, 2007, column when he identified Martin as the presiding judge in Singer v. Riskin, instead of Riskin v. Belinda.
But the newspaper argues that the fair reporting privilege renders it immune from suit, since Louis "substantially stated the substance" of Batra's complaint against Karp.
The Daily News also argues that Louis' pieces amounted to "nonactionable" opinions.
Anne B. Carroll, deputy general counsel for the New York Daily News, declined to comment on pending litigation.
Blander said in an interview that Martin learned of Batra's claim that Karp was secretly representing Singer in Riskin v. Belinda for the first time in 2005, when Batra sent a letter to then-Administrative Justice Neil J. Firetog raising the issue.
Blander said that "any sitting judge values very, very highly his reputation for honesty and for fairness" and that the "entire thrust of the [Daily News] columns was that Justice Martin wasn't doing what he was supposed to do."
In an interview, Batra called Martin's pending action "a frivolous lawsuit [that] ill serves one who sits on the noble bench."
The suit is before Supreme Court Justice Martin J. Schulman.