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Television judges who decide cases on programs such as “The People’s Court” are arbitrators as defined by New York law, and the statements they make from the TV bench may not become the basis for a defamation claim, a New York Civil Court judge has ruled in a case of first impression. Former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch was granted summary judgment in a case where a litigant on “The People’s Court” claimed he was defamed when Koch allegedly called him a “kidnapper” for taking his child away from his mother to Sierra Leone in west Africa. Judge Norman Ryp, in a case that he said presented “Socratic issues of first impression for the 21st century,” said that Koch enjoyed immunity under the arbitration agreement. In Kabia v. Koch, 2386/99, Ryp said that the document signed before the litigants agreed to appear on the program, which released the producers and Koch from liability for statements made during the arbitration, was valid as an arbitration agreement. New York courts in at least two recent cases declined to recognize the results in television arbitrations. But the fact pattern before Ryp dealt not with the result of the arbitration, but the alleged statement uttered by Koch during the arbitration. The plaintiff, Idris Kabia, claimed the former mayor libeled him, alleging that Koch called him a “kidnapper.” The case involved a $2,000 claim by Kabia against his son for the alleged failure to return property to him. Koch handed down a defense verdict and awarded no money to Kabia. Ryp said that, unlike other judges who have evaluated television arbitrations, he viewed “The People’s Court” agreement as creating a valid arbitration under Civil Practice Law and Rules Article 75. The court rejected the assertion that “The People’s Court” is not arbitration because any award is paid by the producers and not by the liable party. “Nowhere in CPLR Article 75 … or case law does it state that an arbitration agreed to by both parties, in writing, fails to be an arbitration … because the award/judgment is paid by a third party,” Ryp wrote. As an arbitrator under CPLR Article 75, Ryp reasoned further, Koch was entitled to absolute arbitral immunity privileges for statements made during the proceedings. “Under this doctrine of arbitral immunity, arbitrators in contractually agreed upon arbitration proceedings are absolutely immune from liability for all acts within the scope of the arbitral process,” Ryp said. “Such acts include questions from ‘Judge-Arbitrator’ Edward I. Koch to ascertain factual background to determine issues and their resolution.” Koch, a partner at Manhattan-based Robinson Silverman Pearce Aronsohn & Berman, has been succeeded as “judge” of “The People’s Court” by former Bronx Supreme Court Justice Gerald Sheindlin. Sheindlin’s wife, former Manhattan Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin, is the star of “Judge Judy,” which has a similar format of settling legal disputes.

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