First Amendment

Media groups, ACLU back lawyer ordered to pay $11K for alerting reporter to upcoming civil trial

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Civil liberties and media groups have submitted amicus briefs supporting an Ohio lawyer ordered to pay $11,000 in attorney fees for alerting a reporter to an upcoming civil trial.

The briefs filed with the Ohio Court of Appeals argue the sanction imposed on lawyer Peter Pattakos violates the First Amendment rights of the lawyer and the public, report and the Columbus Dispatch. A brief by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio is here and a brief by media groups and the Ohio chapter of the National Lawyers Guild is here.

The trial judge who imposed the sanction cited a law barring “frivolous conduct” in civil litigation that “obviously serves merely to harass or maliciously injure another party to a civil action” or is for another improper purpose. The judge said Pattakos intended to discredit the defendants and created a risk of prejudicing the jury.

Pattakos’ disclosure of the information resulted in a story about the case that was published the same day as jury selection in the trial. Pattakos represented the plaintiffs: a nanny who accused a nanny school of covering up her report of a client’s sexual abuse of his daughter, and a school employee who claimed she was fired because she refused to help discredit the nanny.

Pattakos ultimately won $390,000 for the plaintiffs.

The ACLU brief says an attorney’s public comments about nonconfidential information can help ensure the perception of reality of fair legal proceedings. “This idea is grounded not only in First Amendment theories and democratic philosophy but also in the reality that in the U.S. system the press is the main link between the courts and the public, and attorneys are the main link between the courts and the press,” the brief says.

The media brief says Pattakos’ conduct is not considered an ethics violation under the state’s disciplinary rules, and the trial judge’s reliance on the statutory bar on frivolous conduct was a misapplication of the law that chills attorney speech. If Pattakos’ conduct was frivolous, “no prudent lawyer will ever talk to the press,” the brief says.

“Must a lawyer determine, in advance of providing a newspaper with public record information, how the paper intends to staff coverage of the case in question?” the brief asks. “Must a lawyer ask, in advance, what other sources a magazine has, and what other materials it has access to, to ensure balanced coverage before revealing when opening statements are set to begin? Must she receive assurances that a television station will not be unduly critical of her adversaries, despite the record evidence of their misconduct?”

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