A Miss USA contestant hit with a $5 million judgment for saying the pageant run by Donald Trump was rigged is now suing her lawyer for mishandling the defamation case.
Sheena Monnin had signed a contract with Miss USA requiring mandatory, binding arbitration of disputes, but Richard Klineburger III told her not to participate, she claims in Monnin v. Klineburger & Nussey.
Klineburger also allegedly failed to forward correspondence and notices about the arbitration to Monnin and had no communication with her for the three months prior to entry of the judgment last December.
Monnin, Miss Pennsylvania USA, was ousted from the Miss USA pageant on June 3, 2012, after the first round.
Immediately afterward, she claims, she was in the wings when another eliminated contestant reported seeing a list naming the five finalists and Miss Rhode Island as the winner.
When that turned out to be correct, Monnin said in a text message to the owner of the Miss Pennsylvania pageant that she was “shaken and dismayed.”
On June 4 and 5, Monnin wrote on her Facebook page that the contest was “rigged” and “fraudulent, lacking in morals, inconsistent and in many ways trashy.”
Trump, the pageant’s part owner, disputed the claims on Good Morning America on June 6, 2012. He said Monnin was less attractive than the finalists and suffered from “loser’s remorse.” Later, Monnin repeated her claims on the Today Show.
Amid the media coverage, Klineburger, of Klineburger & Nussey in Haddonfield, sent an unsolicited Facebook message to Monnin on June 7, 2012, offering his services pro bono.
On June 26, Monnin was served with Miss USA’s statement of claim for $10 million for defamation, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage and breach of contract, and demand for arbitration. The next day, she retained Klineburger.
Though she corresponded with Klineburger over the next several months, neither Monnin nor Klineburger appeared the arbitration hearing held in New York on Nov. 5, 2012.
Arbitrator Theodore Katz entered a $5 million award against Monnin on Dec. 10, which she learned of Dec. 13.
At that time, she says, Klineburger told her that he was not admitted to practice in New York and could not advise her in the arbitration.
When the Miss USA organization petitioned in the Southern District of New York to confirm the award, Monnin, with new counsel, cross-petitioned to vacate the award, arguing she never got actual or constructive notice of hearing. She objected to Katz’s substantive findings and claimed he acted with manifest disregard of the law.
U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken, in a July 2 decision, found that Katz had “meticulously reviewed the background circumstances” of the dispute between Monnin and the Miss USA pageant.
In analyzing liability, Katz had found that Monnin had published defamatory statements that were factually false, made with actual malice and harmful to the pageant’s reputation.
Among Katz’s findings was that oil company BP had withdrawn its potential $5 million sponsorship of the pageant—in connection with staging the 2013 event on the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast—had been withdrawn after the sponsor raised concerns that the allegations of contest rigging could have a negative effect on its reputation.
Oetken found that Monnin’s counsel had received ample notice of the arbitration proceedings and that the onus was on her to inquire about the status of her case. “Monnin, as the individual affected by, and initially served with, the Statement of Claim, cannot be absolved entirely for her indifference to the proceedings that occurred, over the course of several months, without her participation,” he said.
“Nevertheless,” Oetken added, “it does well to note that Monnin was repeatedly advised by counsel that she need not participate in the arbitration. Blindly, but perhaps understandably, Monnin put her trust in her attorney, believing that he would represent her interests to the best of his ability throughout the arbitration process. Unfortunately, Klineburger chose to ignore the responsibilities owed to his client, along with the ethical duties governing his profession. [She] is now faced with dire consequences due, in no small part, to her counsel’s ineptitude.”
Monnin alleges in her suit, filed Nov. 4 in Camden County Superior Court, that Klineburger failed to review copies of all agreements between her and the pageant, assert defenses to liability and damage claims, take discovery and act with reasonable diligence and promptness.
Klineburger’s office referred a call to his attorney, Meredith Stoma of Morgan Melhuish Abrutyn in Livingston, who says declines to comment, as does Monnin’s attorney, Donald Ottaunick of Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard in Hackensack.■