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In March 2011, Joseph Rakofsky represented a defendant in a murder trial in Washington, D.C. According to court filings, on April 1 he withdrew as counsel, leading to a mistrial, at which time the presiding judge made a number of unflattering statements about Mr. Rakofsky's performance at trial. The Washington Post originally reported on the mistrial. Other publications, like the Washington City Paper, soon followed. From there, Mr. Rakofsky's story spread throughout the legal blogosphere, drawing comment from dozens of bloggers.
On May 11, Mr. Rakofsky filed suit in New York state court against the Post, the City Paper, and many bloggers who had written about him. At issue is the way Mr. Rakofsky's removal from the murder trial has been characterized: In his complaint, Mr. Rakofsky maintains that he left the murder trial by his own motion. Media coverage, like the Post article, focused on the judge's comments about Mr. Rakofsky's command of legal procedures, the fact that Mr. Rakofsky stated in court that he had never before tried a case, and an alleged email from Mr. Rakofsky to an investigator instructing the investigator to "trick" a witness into changing her testimony. The Post quotes the judge as telling Mr. Rakofsky that his trial performance was "below what any reasonable person would expect in a murder trial." A transcript of the judge's comments is now available. The bloggers sued by Mr. Rakofsky generally describe him as "too incompetent to handle the case," or otherwise suggest that the mistrial was due to Mr. Rakofsky's "inexperience."
Mr. Rakofsky initially sued 74 parties; the complaint often names both individual bloggers and their associated businesses. (For example, the complaint names both "The Law Offices of Michael T. Doudna" and "Michael T. Doudna, individually.")
The initial complaint contains two causes of action: (1) defamation, and (2) violations of sections 50 and 51 of the New York Civil Rights Law, alleging that defendants used Mr. Rakofsky's name and picture for commercial purposes without his consent.
On May 16, Mr. Rakofsky amended his complaint to add a count of intentional infliction of emotional distress and a count of interference with Mr. Rakofsky's contracts with other clients. The number of defendant parties also rose to 75.
As of June 1, 2011, some defendants apparently had not yet been served.
On June 3, New York attorney Eric Turkewitz and Nevada attorney Marc Randazza, representing approximately 30 of the named defendants (including Mr. Turkewitz himself), motioned for a time extention for all defendants, to help organize what the motion calls "the oncoming blizzard of paperwork" as various defendants respond to the complaint. Mr. Turkewitz also submitted an affidavit in which he discussed the background of the case and the legal issues involved.
On June 4, New York attorney David Brickman, representing defendants Maxwell Kennerly and Mr. Kennerly's law firm The Beasley Firm, filed a motion to dismiss. The accompanying memorandum argues that Mr. Kennerly's blog post is a combination of opinion and fair reporting of court proceedings; thus, according to the memo, the case should be dismissed.
One June 13, Mr. Brickman, also representing Mirriam Seddiq and Jameson Koehler, filed two more motions to dismiss. The motions are mostly identical to Mr. Kennerly's motion.
6/13/2011 - Rakofsky's attorney, Richard Borzouye, files notice that on July 1 he will move to withdraw from the case. On the same day, acting pro se, Rakofsky files a memo opposing the pro hac admission of Marc Randazza.
6/15/2011 - Defendant Mace Yampolsky answers the complaint and asserts affirmative defenses including, inter alia, that the court lacks personal jurisdiction, that the complaint fails to state a claim for which relief can be granted, and that Rakofsky's lawsuit is frivolous. Yampolsky also seeks sanctions and attorneys' fees.
6/17/2011 - Marc Randazza and Eric Turkewitz file “reply affidavits” in support of Randazza's pro hac admission; the "affidavits" discuss communication between Rakofsky, Borzouye, and the defense.
6/22/2011 - Reuters and its reporter Daniel Slater file notice of a motion to dismiss. The motion and accompanying memo discuss the merits of the defamation and misappropriation claims.
On the same day, Eric Turkewitz files an affidavit, partially opposing Richard Borzouye's motion to withdraw as Rakofsky's attorney. Turkewitz expresses concern with the corporate plaintiff's impending lack of counsel.
6/24/2011 - Defendant Michael Doudna files notice of a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction; the motion also seeks sanctions against Rakofsky for bringing a "frivolous" lawsuit in "bad faith." Harmony Kenney, who operated Doudna's website, files a supporting affidavit.
7/20/2011 - The Washington Post, its reporter Keith Alexander, and its researcher Jennifer Jenkins, move to dismiss. The motion discusses both substantive issues (including that the Post article is protected by the fair report privilege) and jurisdictional issues (long-arm jurisdiction over Alexander and Jenkins).
7/21/2011 - Georgia attorney Jeanne O'Halleran files a motion to dismiss, and an accompanying affidavit. The memorandum in support of the motion argues, inter alia, a lack of personal jurisdiction and that O’Halleran’s statements were a fair and accurate report, and asks for sanctions. The filings include a copy of the D.C. murder-trial transcript from the day before the mistrial, and a copy of the investigator's "motion" that raised ethical issues.
On the same day, the Washington City Paper and its associated defendants file a motion to dismiss on similar grounds, along with affidavits from its reporter, publisher, and parent company VP/CFO. The City Paper and O'Halleran are both represented by Davis Wright Tremaine.
7/22/2011 - The trial court grants Richard Borzouye's motion to withdraw as Rakofsky's attorney. The court stays proceedings until September 14, to allow Rakofsky to find a new attorney.
6/28/2012 - The court (Hagler, J.) holds a hearing on the pending motions to dismiss and on a motion by Rakofsky to submit a second amended complaint. The defendants, through selected representatives among defense counsel, and the plaintiffs, represented by a new attorney (Matthew Goldsmith, Esq.), argue the application to Rakofsky's claims of the fair report privilege, the republication privilege (for those defendants who republished an original account in the Washington Post), 47 U.S.C. § 230 (for one defendant who operates an online forum), Rakofsky's status as a public figure, and assorted jurisdictional issues. Plaintiffs' counsel also argue that new claims that they have proposed to add to the case are not duplicative of their defamation claim. At the end of the hearing, Judge Hagler took the motions under advisement, but stated to plaintiffs' counsel:
(Transcript p. 91, ll. 10-20).
7/1/2012 - Rakofsky, in a letter to the court over his own name, argues that his proposed claim for negligence in his second amended complaint is not duplicative of his defamation claim.
1/2/2013 - After a six month period in which plaintiffs did not withdraw their claims as urged by the court at the June 28, 2012 hearing, the defendants represented by the Turkewitz Law Firm and Randazza Legal Group file a motion for sanctions against plaintiffs and attorney Goldsmith for vexatious conduct and frivolous claims.
4/29/2013 - The court consolidated all pending motions and issued an order addressing these motions. The court dismissed claims for lack of personal jurisdiction against the defendants that so moved, finding that Rakofsky did not establish that the defendants engaged in any purposeful activity and minimum contacts in New York, such that New York's long-arm jurisdiction statute would apply. The court also granted the motions to dismiss on the defamation claim substantively, finding that the defendants' statements regarding the mistrial were not defamatory, the allegations of incompetence and substance of the allegations of bad ethical behavior were protected by New York's fair report privilege, and all other statements were either opinions based on disclosed facts or pure opinion. The parties that republished or summarized the Washington Post story were also found to have a valid wire service republication defense.
The court also dismissed the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, finding no showing of the requisite "extreme and outrageous conduct," and the intentional interference with contract claim, finding that claim inadequately pleaded. The court dismissed the misappropriation of name or likeness claims under N.Y. Civil Law §§ 50-51, finding this reporting under the "newsworthiness" exception to those claims.
The court denied Rakofsky's leave to amend the petition to add claims of injurious falsehood, prima facie tort, and negligence, finding the injurious falsehood and negligence claims duplicative, and finding that Rakofsky will be unable to to plead special damages for the prima facie tort.
The court also denied without prejudice Rakofsky's motions to discontinue the action against eight of the defendants, and for default judgment against seven of the plaintiffs, because Rakofsky did not adequately identify the parties at issue. As to the motion for default, the court advised Rakofsky to consider "if it is appropriate to seek this relief again based on the rulings herein." The court declined to issue sanctions sought by both sides.