A beauty queen's claim that the Miss USA Pageant run by Donald Trump was rigged has cost her $5 million in damages for defamation.
Southern District Judge J. Paul Oetken on Tuesday upheld an arbitration award against Sheena Monnin, the former Miss Pennsylvania USA 2012 who alleged on Facebook and the "Today" show that the 2012 pageant in Las Vegas had a "script" dictating the final 16 and the top five finishers.
Ex-Miss Pennsylvania Sheena Monnin competes in the 2012 Miss USA Pageant in Las Vegas. Greg Harbaugh/UPI Landov
Oetken also criticized Monnin's attorney, Richard Klineburger, for refusing to participate in the arbitration before Theodore Katz in 2012, saying his "ineptitude" led to a result that was perhaps unfair to Monnin, who "undeniably is suffering from her poor choice of counsel."
After being crowned Miss Pennsylvania USA in 2012, Monnin signed three contracts with Randy Sanders of Sanders & Associates, which owns the franchise for the Miss Pennsylvania USA pageant. The contracts, including one with Miss Universe L.P. (MUO), committed her to appear in the Miss Universe Miss USA pageant in Las Vegas on June 3, 2012. The contract with MUO had a clause requiring any dispute to be resolved in arbitration.
MUO is a partnership between NBC and Trump.
Fifty-one contestants took the stage, but the number was quickly reduced to 16 based on preliminary scoring. Monnin was among those dismissed.
While waiting in the wings to return to the dressing room, Monnin claims she was told by Miss Florida USA, Karina Brez, that Brez had seen a paper in a notebook with a list of the top five finishers already written out.
Furious, Monnin got out her smartphone and began a rapid-fire text exchange with Sanders.
"This is f-ing rigged Randy," she wrote. "I'm done. This is ridiculous," and "It's so obviously rigged so the girl they want can shine; they kept several beautiful girls out for that reason."
Monnin also texted, "Seriously?" "Colorado?"; "South Carolina?"; "Florida saw the list of Top 5 this morning"; "It was on a script for the show tonight."
Sanders texted that the pageant was on the level, and told Monnin "Be strong!" and don't "let this change who you are!"
The winner turned out to be Miss Rhode Island USA, Olivia Culpo, and the morning after Culpo was crowned, Monnin resigned by email to Sanders.
In her resignation, Monnin also said she disagreed with the organization's decision to allow transgender contestants.
"I refuse to be part of a pageant system that has so far and so completely removed itself from its foundational principles as to allow and support natural born males to compete in it," she said. "This goes against every moral fiber of my being."
A media frenzy was triggered that same day when Monnin went public with her allegations in a Facebook post and then posted them again on June 5.
The next day, Monnin received a hand-delivered letter from MUO saying it intended to assert claims for her false and defamatory statements.
But it didn't end there. Monnin then went on "Today" on June 8 for an interview with Ann Curry to defend herself and repeat her allegations about what Miss Florida USA had told her backstage.
Trump struck back on "Good Morning America," calling Monnin's allegations "disgraceful" and accused her of having "loser's remorse."
Trump was backed up by Miss Florida USA, who appeared on E! to say she had only been joking and the Pageant couldn't have been rigged because Miss Rhode Island was not on the top-five list.
MOU took Monnin to arbitration seeking $10 million in damages, but Monnin did not attend the arbitration because Klineburger, of Klineburger & Nussey in Haddonfield, N.J., and Philadelphia, claimed she was not obligated to arbitrate and she had resigned on June 4, terminating her contractual obligations.
The arbitrator, retired Magistrate Judge Theodore Katz, issued his award on Dec. 10, 2012, saying Monnin's comments about "rigging" caused MUO to lose a $5 million site fee from BP to sponsor the 2013 Pageant on the Gulf Coast.
Katz said her comments in Facebook and on "Today" were defamatory, "obviously harmful to MUO's business" and made with "actual malice."
MUO petitioned in the Southern District to confirm the award in Miss Universe v. Monnin, 12 civ. 9174.
Before Oetken, with new counsel, Monnin claimed Klineburger had told her "she was not bound by any agreement to arbitrate and that Sheena need not respond to any communications" from the arbitration service. She also said Klineburger did not keep her apprised of the situation, and she therefore lacked notice of the arbitration.
While Oetken lamented the performance of Klineburger, he rejected the notice argument.
"While it is unfortunate and perhaps unfair that Klineburger, likely in violation of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, failed to communicate with his client for several months, despite receiving repeated entreaties and status updates regarding the Arbitration, it is well established that notice to an attorney constitutes notice to the represented client," he said.
Monnin had claimed that the arbitration service, JAMS, failed to provide Klineburger with a copy of the agreement with MUO, but the judge said this was "a red herring for two reasons."
"First, Monnin herself had signed the agreement and it was part of the record for the Arbitration proceedings, and second, Klineburger failed even to serve document requests on MUO's counsel that encompassed the agreements, as he refused to participate in any pre-Hearing briefing or exchange," Oetken said.
"Klineburger undisputedly held himself out as Monnin's counsel and representative for both the Arbitration and other 'ancillary proceedings,' only later to disavow this relationship, informing Monnin that he is not licensed to practice in New York, and thus, was unable to give her advice on the Arbitration matter," he said, and the attorney boycotted the arbitration "without any apparent consideration for the consequences of non-participation."
But Oetken said the client "cannot be absolved entirely" for her non-participation, and "Monnin is now faced with dire consequences due, in no small part, to her counsel's ineptitude, which constitutes a harsh result."
Scott Balber of Cooley represented MUO.
"The Miss Universe Organization is very gratified by the decision and we hope this is the end of an unpleasant saga," Balber said.
Monnin was represented by Damian Albergo, Michael Yellin and Steven Klein of Cole Schotz Meisel Forman & Leonard.
@|Mark Hamblett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.