51 Park Place, center, site of the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan originally called the Cordoba House and now called Park51. (NYLJ/Monika Kozak)
A federal judge has dismissed a defamation suit against real estate attorney Adam Leitman Bailey for accusing opponents of a proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan of bigotry in court filings.
District of Columbia Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled last week in Forras v. Rauf, 1:12-cv-00282, that the suit is barred by the District of Columbia’s law against strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as SLAPP suits. The anti-SLAPP law is intended to prevent people from using lawsuits to suppress public speech on issues of public interest.
The case arose from a plan to build an Islamic center on Park Place in lower Manhattan, originally called the Cordoba House and now called Park51. The plan is spearheaded by Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Muslim American leader who said he envisions the center as a forum for promoting interfaith dialogue. Rauf is working with a developer, Sharif El-Gamal, who controls three adjacent properties at the proposed site.
In 2010, Vincent Forras, a former volunteer firefighter who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, filed a lawsuit seeking to block the project. Forras said in the suit that he rented office space, which he also used as a part-time home, several blocks north of the planned center.
Forras alleged that people behind Park51 are linked to terrorist groups, and that building the center was intended as a “return to the ‘scene’ of prior terror attacks … instilling greater terror and severe emotional distress on the populace.” The suit, Forras v. Rauf, 111970/10, originally purported to be a class action on behalf of “individuals working, residing, frequenting, visiting and traveling within New York City currently and at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,” but Forras later withdrew the class allegations.
Forras was represented by Larry Klayman, a conservative activist attorney who filed multiple unsuccessful lawsuits against President Bill Clinton. He is representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the National Security Administration’s collection of telephone data.
Rauf was represented by Bailey. In the dismissal motion submitted by Rauf, Bailey lashed out at Forras and his lawyer.
The motion called Klayman “an infamous publicity hound” who found in Forras a “perfect victim, a man who could have comfortably concluded his life as a national hero.”
“Instead, thanks to this wholly frivolous lawsuit, he trades in his well-deserved laurels for fifteen minutes of fame as a nationally recognized bigot,” the motion said. “His cause and his case have all the rationality of one who would seek to tear down New York City’s Chinatown as vengeance for Pearl Harbor on the theory that all Asians are alike.”
In an affirmation submitted in the case, Bailey again accused his adversaries of “blind bigotry,” and implicitly compared their views to those of the Nazis.
“When in the days following an analogous atrocity in 1941 our people marshaled their will and marched off, nobody was an American of this type,” he wrote. “We were all united under a single banner pledged to eradicate the very kind of religious intolerance we see in [this] plaintiff, represented in those years by the Third Reich and those aligned with it.”
The New York Post ran an article on the motion in October 2010.
In October 2011, Klayman and Forras sued Bailey and Rauf for defamation, false light, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress in D.C. Superior Court. They later dropped their case there and filed it again in D.C. district court.
Bailey moved to dismiss on the grounds that it violated the District of Columbia’s anti-SLAPP law and that it was time-barred.
Rothstein ruled that Bailey had made a prima facie case that the lawsuit shifted the burden onto Klayman and Forras to show that they were likely to prevail. She ruled that they were not, holding that the defamation claim failed because the statements were protected by judicial proceedings privilege.
“While this court does not wish to be understood as condoning defendants’ statements, ‘the immunity of the absolute privilege supports the public policy of allowing counsel to zealously represent a client’s interests without fear of reprisal through defamation actions,’” she wrote, quoting a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision, Arneja v. Gildar, 541 A.2d 621.
She also rejected claims of assault made by Klayman and Forras, who alleged that Islamic extremists read the court papers and so put them at risk of harm. Rothstein ruled that “Defendants’ privileged statements, while uncomplimentary of plaintiffs, are too attenuated to amount to an assault.”
She similarly ruled that the statements “do not rise to the extreme and outrageous level” required to sustain an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.
Finally, she said that the suit was time-barred under the one-year statute of limitations for defamation claims, rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments that they preserved their claims by filing the Superior Court case that they later dropped.
“We’re extremely happy with the decision,” Bailey said. He also said that the case “could not be more frivolous.”
“It’s not a fun experience representing unpopular clients,” Bailey said. “You really need to believe in the cause.”
Klayman could not be reached for comment.
Brad Groznik, a spokesman for Park51, said it was not certain that the plan to build the Islamic center on Park Place would go forward, and that El-Gamal may have other plans for the site. He said that Park51 will continue to operate as a non-profit in any case.