A Manhattan Supreme Court justice caught in a re-election controversy last year has leveled a $40 million defamation lawsuit at the New York Post, claiming that articles about the flap falsely branded her as a “lazy,” “slow” and “lackluster” judge.
Doris Ling-Cohan, who ultimately landed on the Democratic ballot and was re-elected in November, has filed a 35-page complaint that accuses the Post of mischaracterizing her efficiency and effort as a judge, including in numerous headlines. The allegedly derogatory portrait, which zeroed in on her work ethic, was “intentional, purposeful and intended to convey to the public that [she] was the antithesis of the Asian-American ‘stereotype’ of hardworking and diligent,” Ling-Cohan claims in the lawsuit.
“It was an attack on the judiciary, and on the independence of the judiciary, and I frankly don’t want to see a colleague go through anything like what I did,” Ling-Cohan said Wednesday in an interview with the Law Journal about the case, which she filed last week in Manhattan Supreme Court.
“I had another judge actually say to me, that what I went through makes you think twice about sticking your neck out, about making powerful interests unhappy” as you perform work as a judge, she said. “That really gave me pause, because for me, wherever the law takes you is where you have to go with your rulings.”
The complaint, which brings 14 causes of actions, demands a retraction of portions of three Post stories from August and September 2016. The justice also asks for both compensatory and punitive damages, and alleges that she has suffered special damages, including the “prejudicing of her ability to obtain re-election to her [Supreme Court] position and to be appointed to higher judicial office, and to obtain lucrative and prestigious positions in the private sector thereafter.”
While Ling-Cohan has been designated to sit on the Appellate Term in Manhattan, which hears appeals from the lower courts in the city, she has not yet been appointed to the state Appellate Division in her career.
Ling-Cohan and her lawyer, Dolly Caraballo of Caraballo & Mandell in Manhattan, said Wednesday that they would not speculate about the Post’s or its sources’ motivation for allegedly defaming the judge. The complaint makes no motivation explicit.
Iva Benson, a spokeswoman for the Post, said that the Post had no comment on the lawsuit at this time.
Ling-Cohan points to three different “libelous” articles in the complaint, including an Aug. 31, 2016, story headlined, “Democratic Party Bars ‘Lazy’ Pro-LGBT Judge From Election Ticket.”
The Post articles primarily focused on a Manhattan Democratic Party screening panel’s “highly unusual” choice to not recommend Ling-Cohan, an incumbent judge, for re-election. Incumbents are almost always endorsed for re-election by the panel, which consists mostly of lawyers, and at first it appeared Ling-Cohan would not be included on the Democrats’ November ballot.
Relying on anonymous sources, the Aug. 31 article said there had been a “consensus [on the panel] that she was a lackluster judge.”
The same article also quoted a source with “knowledge of the [panel's] decision” as stating, “Somebody had it in for her, and there were five Asian-Americans on the panel who did not speak out for her.”
In addition, the source is quoted in the Post story as saying that Ling-Cohan’s reputation was “as one of the worst judges—nonproductive, lazy, not hard-working, disorganized, takes a lot of time off, late with decisions.”
Ling-Cohan claims that the Post could have “easily” figured out that information from its anonymous sources was wrong. Post reporters, three of whom are named as defendants, could have reviewed Office of Court Administration information or seen “her documented record of writing over 200 published decisions as of 2014 and industriously championing causes in her community and the profession,” she says in the lawsuit.
In addition, the justice underscores that the Post published its own Sept. 12, 2016, story in the days after three previous ones included “defamatory statements,” and that that story appeared to contradict earlier statements made by anonymous sources.
“Court insiders say her [Ling-Cohan's] statistical record in handling and disposing of cases put her in the middle of the pack, not at the bottom,” the Sept. 12 Post story is quoted as stating.
Yet the Post has never retracted or corrected the previous stories or revealed the sources, Ling-Cohan complains in her suit.
The judge also cites several New York Law Journal articles, published during the same September time frame, that she says contained accurate information.
For instance, a Sept. 13, 2016, Law Journal article quoted a letter from certain screening committee panelists as saying, “We also wish to clarify that the words ‘lazy’ and ‘slow’ reported in various New York Post articles, were not words we heard used by the panel.”
Ling-Cohan, the first woman of Asian descent to be elected to the state Supreme Court and later to be appointed to a New York appellate term, is perhaps best known for her 2005 ruling in Hernandez v. Robles, a case in which five homosexual couples argued that denying them marriage rights violated the state’s constitution. Ling-Cohan agreed, becoming the first trial judge in the state to approve same-sex marriage. The decision is touted as “trailblazing” by the gay-rights community, and many credit the opinion, which was later reversed on appeal, with helping to lead to New York’s passage of same-sex marriage legislation in 2011.
“Until the publication of the defamatory matters … Justice Ling-Cohan was held in high esteem by her colleagues on the bench, her superiors and the legal community,” Ling-Cohan and her lawyer also allege in the complaint.
Then, while referencing her standing in the Asian-American community, where she grew up in Manhattan’s Chinatown to become a well-known judge, Ling-Cohan alleges, “The use of the words ‘lazy’ and ‘slow’ were, as used about an Asian-American hero of the community, scandalous, shameful and reprehensible as they represent the traits most valued by such communities.”
She additionally notes that two area Chinese language newspapers republished alleged defamatory statements from the Post, and says that “it is an egregious dereliction of duty for a judge to be lazy and slow in handling her caseload and taking time off.”
Ling-Cohan, first elected to the Supreme Court in 2002, came under scrutiny last year after the screening panel reportedly voted, 12 to 10, to endorse three other incumbent justices, but not her.
Minority bar associations, elected officials and some city lawyers jumped to her defense, claiming that a tainted panel process had jeopardized an Asian-American judge who inspired thousands. They said the panel was wrongly influenced by pro-landlord members who were upset with Ling-Cohan’s history of pro-tenant trial court rulings and pro-tenant dissents since 2014 while sitting on the Appellate Term.
Days later, a majority of the screening panel wrote to the party’s judiciary committee requesting a re-vote on Ling-Cohan. But the request was denied.
Meanwhile, Ling-Cohan went into campaign mode, talking to some 60 or 70 convention delegates and urging them to vote her onto the November ballot anyway.
Then on Sept. 23, Manhattan Democrats voted overwhelmingly to put her on the ballot, as more than 80 delegates packed a nominating convention auditorium in Harlem and yelled out “Aye” and “Yes” in unison as cheers erupted.
Shortly after the vote, Ling-Cohan stood in a hallway of Harlem Hospital Center and said angrily that at least one panel member had tried to dismantle her career.
“Someone called up the New York Post and said very defamatory lies,” she said at the time. “So those were the lies about me being ‘lazy,’ about me being ‘slow’—all those things … were never used by the screening panel members … [That] shows a real malicious intent of doing damage to me.”
By phone Wednesday, Ling-Cohan, her voice cracking slightly as she became upset, said, “For me, it’s always difficult to be a litigant, having to relive all of this again.”
She paused. “Even now, just talking about it, it makes me emotional.”