From left, Katherine Bolger, Rachel Strom and Nathan Siegel (Courtesy photos)
It’s a busy time for media law and First Amendment attorneys. In the wake of Hulk Hogan’s fatal verdict against Gawker and President Donald Trump’s near daily attacks on the media, news organizations are facing lawsuits in high-stakes and high-visibility cases.
Amid what some see as an uptick in libel cases, five attorneys involved in major defamation and First Amendment matters moved their practice this month from Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz to Davis Wright Tremaine. The group includes New York partners Katherine Bolger and Rachel Strom; Washington, D.C., partner Nathan Siegel; and two New York associates, Amy Wolf and Adam Lazier.
Bolger, attorney to major news organizations, authors, publishers and professional athletes, was part of a Levine Sullivan team representing the estate of the late Chris Kyle, a sniper for the Navy SEAL, in securing the appellate reversal of a $1.85 million jury award for former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, who alleged unjust enrichment and defamation.
In New York’s Eastern District federal court, she represented a consortium of news outlets in successfully opposing the defense motion to close voir dire to reporters at Martin Shkreli’s trial. In the last week, she has urged the court to disclose the names of jury members, continuing to battle with Shkreli’s lawyers.
Siegel’s media clients have included ABC News, Tribune Co. and ESPN in defamation lawsuits, and he represented producers and broadcasters of reality TV programs in right of publicity cases. Strom represents new and digital media companies, including Vice, Slate, Gimlet Media and Townsquare.
While working at Levine Sullivan for the past five years, Bolger said she has been both a competitor and co-counsel with Davis Wright attorneys.
“The media bar is pretty small so we have all worked with each other in all sorts of ways,” she said.
She said she was drawn to Davis Wright for its “stronger national reach.” While the group represents many news organizations, the firm also handles entertainment industry matters. Davis Wright has nine locations, including in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“Having a strong California office is a huge asset,” Bolger said.
Bolger said the move may also introduce new opportunities with clients such as content providers, media platforms and a variety of others. Davis Wright has represented Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft and Netflix.
Levine Sullivan managing partner Jay Brown said in a statement that his firm remains “a premier media law firm with a national litigation practice,” and he wishes the departing attorneys well. Levine Sullivan “has been fortunate to attract some of the finest attorneys in the business. While departures are rare for us, we are not immune from the forces of mobility in our profession,” Brown said.
Media on the Defensive
Amid their firm transition, Bolger’s group has been especially busy defending news organizations in the last year.
For the past two decades libel suits have been trending down, said George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center, but in the last year Freeman and others have observed anecdotal evidence of an uptick.
Freeman cited as possible catalysts Trump’s attacks on the credibility of news organizations, with the president often calling their reports “fake news,” and ABC settling in June with a meat company objecting to negative coverage of a product critics have called pink slime.
“It may be having an effect on the greater propensity of plaintiffs and plaintiffs lawyers to bring suits,” Freeman said. “The biggest issue right now is whether libel suits are coming back.”
Thomas Hentoff, co-chair of Williams & Connolly’s First Amendment and media practice group, agreed on the busy state of media law. “It does appear to me that defamation plaintiffs are being more aggressive in the last several months,” he said.
For her part, Bolger represented several news organizations and individual journalists facing wire fraud-based Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act claims for alleged “false” news stories about Trump in last year’s presidential election. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York suit was dismissed in May.
“People are more anxious to sue or tussle with the media,” she said.
Bolger has also been defending BuzzFeed in defamation litigation after the website published an infamous anti-Trump dossier, according to court filings.
There’s some speculation on whether a $140 million verdict against Gawker for invasion of privacy last year has emboldened some plaintiffs. Kenneth Turkel and Shane Vogt of the Tampa, Florida-based Bajo Cuva Cohen & Turkel, who were part of the legal team representing Hogan, now represent Sarah Palin in a defamation suit against The New York Times over a June editorial.
Bolger said the Trump administration’s “willingness to attack the press has been a factor in the way people perceive the press.” Meanwhile, she said, plaintiffs may think there may be more substantial money damages in lawsuits against the press.