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Philadelphia attorney Richard A. Sprague has agreed that he should be treated as a “limited purpose” public figure for the purposes of his libel lawsuit against the American Bar Association and its monthly magazine, the ABA Journal. Sprague’s concession is a significant boon to the ABA since it means that he must now prove his claim under an “actual malice” standard. In the suit, Sprague claims he was defamed by an October 2000 article that described him as “perhaps the most powerful lawyer-cum-fixer in the state.” The ABA’s lawyers filed a hefty brief on the issue of Sprague’s status — along with a two-volume appendix of exhibits — in an effort to show that Sprague has become a public figure as a result of a career full of high-profile cases. “Mr. Sprague’s conscious decision to accept high-profile engagements and to lead a public life has turned him into a public figure in the Philadelphia area, as well as the local and national legal communities,” attorneys David H. Marion, Joyce S. Meyers, Michael A. Twersky and Jeanette Melendez Bead of Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads wrote. “Sprague is one of the most well-known figures in Philadelphia, both within the legal community and among the general public, and is one of the most famous lawyers in America. For the past three decades Mr. Sprague’s name has appeared in hundreds of articles, stories and news reports in the local and national press. Moreover, within just the past few years he has been the subject of entire articles,” the brief said. “Sprague’s fame has only grown in recent years. He no longer needs high-profile clients or cases to attract media attention. Mr. Sprague, himself, is news. The very fact that he becomes involved in an existing legal matter has been the subject of news reports. Indeed, Mr. Sprague’s name alone, without further explanation, is used in headlines because people simply know him,” the brief said. The defense team argued that Sprague fits at least one of the three special categories of plaintiffs in libel cases — public official, general purpose public figure or limited purpose public figure — all of which carry the heavier actual malice standard. Sprague’s lawyer, James E. Beasley of Philadelphia’s Beasley, Casey & Erbstein, opted not to fight the motion but instead to limit it. By conceding that Sprague is a limited purpose public figure, Beasley guaranteed that U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania would not issue an opinion that said Sprague has become a general public figure — a finding that could have haunted Sprague in future cases. The limited purpose public figure status means that Sprague conceded he became a public figure in the specific case discussed in the ABA Journal‘s article. Sprague sued over a four-page article headlined “Cops in the Crossfire” that detailed the unusual court battles that ensued after Philadelphia police officer Christopher DiPasquale shot Donta Dawson, an unarmed black teen-ager, in the early morning hours of Oct. 19, 1998. When the district attorney’s office chose not to prosecute DiPasquale, the article said, a group of black leaders and elected officials filed a private criminal complaint and won a court order from a black judge that required District Attorney Lynne Abraham to pursue murder charges. Sprague’s suit focuses on a single paragraph: “The political stakes were raised in May when the DA accepted outside help in the case from her former boss, Richard Sprague, perhaps the most powerful lawyer-cum-fixer in the state. The appearance of the storied Dick Sprague set off alarms in the black precincts. Within a week, they brought in their own big guns.” Last year, Sprague won the first round in the litigation when Yohn ruled that readers of the magazine could have attached defamatory meaning to the magazine’s labeling Sprague a “fixer.” The ABA had urged Yohn to dismiss the suit, arguing that the description was clearly intended as a compliment. In its motion to dismiss, the ABA argued that “the use of the term ‘fixer’ to describe a prominent, highly successful lawyer, widely known and sought after for his effectiveness as a problem-solver and trouble-shooter in connection with politically sensitive issues and cases, is not unusual.” But Yohn sided with Sprague and found that the term “fixer” also has a negative meaning that includes the criminal act of “fixing” cases. Yohn found that the ABA Journal‘s use of the term was not absolutely clear — even when read in context. “Because of this ambiguity in the context of the article, I must find that readers of ABA Journal could possibly have understood the term ‘fixer’ to be defamatory,” Yohn wrote. Since then, the litigation has been marked by several discovery disputes, including claims by the ABA that Sprague’s lawyers were going too far in their questioning of the ABA’s in-house lawyers and intruding on attorney-client privilege. Beasley complained that the ABA was intruding on Sprague’s privacy by demanding financial information. In a recent hearing, Yohn asked Beasley to outline Sprague’s claim for damages. Beasley said Sprague is seeking damages for his emotional distress and the damage to his reputation. But when Yohn pressed Beasley on that point, Beasley said he has no witnesses who will testify that the article caused them to change their opinion of Sprague. Instead, Beasley said, Sprague’s witnesses will be lawyers who say they read the article and considered it “outrageous” because they know that Sprague is not a case fixer. Beasley said the case will be presented to the jury under a “defamation per se” theory because Sprague now fears that judges and lawyers who don’t know him may decide to treat him differently as a result of the conclusions they reached from reading the article. But defense attorney Meyers said Pennsylvania has “abandoned” the legal notion of libel per se, and that a plaintiff now must prove that an allegedly libelous article has caused damage to his reputation. “You can’t just come in and say, ‘They called me a name. Give me some money,’” Meyers said. Meyers said Sprague’s suit should be tossed out on summary judgment if the only proof of damages he can present is that “his friends read it and thought it was outrageous but did not think any less of him.” Yohn asked both sides to submit briefs on the question of Sprague’s burden of proof.

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