Tort Law

Court tosses disbarred lawyer's suit over newspaper article on his ethics case with a 'crime' header

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An appeals court in California has tossed a suit filed against the San Francisco Chronicle by a now-disbarred lawyer who claimed the newspaper defamed him partly by putting a “crime” header caption on a story about his ethics case.

The lawyer, Wade Robertson, also said the September 2013 article defamed him by reporting he had “cheated” an elderly client out of $3.5 million and he had been suspended from law practice.

The San Francisco Chronicle article had reported on a disbarment recommendation stemming from Robertson’s partnership with a 77-year-old Maryland resident who contributed $3.5 million to finance a class action lawsuit in return for a cut of the proceeds. Robertson had used the money for personal investments and failed to disclose that the class action was dismissed, a state bar court had found.

The California Court of Appeal, First District, said in a June 26 unpublished opinion that the article was an accurate report on an official proceeding by the state bar court. The “crime” header, when read in conjunction with the entire article, does not accuse Robertson of any crime, the appeals court said.

In addition, the appeals court said, the state bar court had concluded that Robertson had committed acts involving moral turpitude, dishonesty or corruption in “a deviously orchestrated plan to defraud” the Maryland man. The San Francisco Chronicle accurately summarized the findings, the appeals court said. And its report that Robertson was suspended pending an appeal was “entirely accurate,” the appeals court said, though the actual term for his suspension was a transfer to “involuntary inactive status.”

The appeals court affirmed dismissal of the lawsuit based on California’s anti-SLAPP law, which authorizes a motion to dismiss a suit arising from the right to free speech in connection with a public issue. “From time to time, this court has encountered difficult cases concerning the scope and application of the anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute,” the opinion began. “This case is not one of them.”

The court said it was “hard pressed to imagine how the article could have been fairer to Robertson” given its reporting on Robertson’s disagreement with the bar court findings.

Robertson did not immediately respond to a voice mail message. He is a graduate of Stanford University Law School, according to the state bar website.

Hat tip to Law360.

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