Third Circuit Rejects Claim For “Defamation By Relation”

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Defamation (pd)
Is it defamatory for a book to report that you are the child of a suspected Nazi? This was the question recently addressed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Soobzokov v. Lichtblau, an unpublished decision.

In Soobzokov, plaintiff sued the author and publisher of a book entitled, "The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler's Men." In the book, the author argued that plaintiff's father was one of several former Nazis brought to the United States after World War II for "strategic purposes."  Among other things, the book described the challenges faced by the children of alleged Nazis, including plaintiff. When writing the book, the author spent nearly seven days with plaintiff and later communicated with him via email and telephone. According to the Third Circuit, plaintiff "makes a handful of appearances in the book — all of which emphasize his unwavering belief in his father's innocence."

After the book was published, plaintiff sued for defamation. His claim took two forms. First, he alleged that three references to him in the book were defamatory: a section that described his belief in his father's innocence as "an obsession;" a section that described his "determination to revive the investigation into his father's brutal murder — which had gone unsolved for nearly 25 years;" and a mention of him in the "Acknowledgements section, which plaintiff claimed could suggest that he assisted in the writing of the book, which could "lend[] [him] to be considered a traitor to his father before the entire world." Second, plaintiff alleged that these statements, even if they were not defamatory in their own right, were defamatory when combined with the negative comments about his father. The district court rejected both aspects of plaintiff's defamation claim and dismissed the complaint. Plaintiff appealed.

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“Judges Think I Am Awesome!” Third Circuit Approves Use Of Judicial Endorsement on Lawyer’s Website

by: Peter J. Gallagher

In an interesting First Amendment decision issued yesterday, he U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit struck down a New Jersey attorney-advertising guideline that banned attorneys from including judicial quotations in their advertising unless the full judicial opinions appeared in the advertisement.

In Dwyer v. Cappell, an attorney, Andrew Dwyer,  included several favorable quotations from judicial opinions on his firm’s webpage, including one where a judge, in the context of a fee application, noted that the attorney was “a fierce, if sometimes not disinterested advocate for his clients,” who had “molded the case to the point where it could be successfully resolved.” The judge who wrote that opinion asked Dwyer to remove the quotation from the website. When Dwyer refused, the judge contacted the Committee on Attorney Advertising.

After meeting with Dwyer and receiving submissions from him on the issue, the Committee proposed an attorney-advertising guideline, and solicited public comment on it, that would have banned attorneys from including quotations “from a judge or court opinion (oral or written) regarding the attorney[s’] abilities or legal services.”  Dwyer submitted a comment objecting to the proposed objection as an unconstitutional ban on speech. Nonetheless, three years later, the New Jersey Supreme Court approved an amended version of the guideline that banned attorneys from using quotations from judicial opinions in their advertisements, but allowed them to advertise using the full text of judicial opinions in which those quotations appeared. The comments to the proposed rule explained that it was designed to avoid confusing the public into believing that a judge was endorsing a specific attorney, something that is prohibited under the Rules of Professional Conduct.

 

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Victory For Commercial Affordable Housing

by:  Katharine A. Muscalino

Private commercial developers have struggled to install affordable housing in New Jersey’s municipalities for decades, facing opposition from communities, local governments, and the municipal zoning boards.  The Appellate Division has just eased the burden of private developers by holding, for the first time explicitly, that affordable housing built by a commercial developer (as opposed to a non-profit or public entity) qualifies as an “inherently beneficial use” in Conifer Realty LLC v. Township of Middle Zoning Board of Adjustment (September 9, 2011).  By being categorized as an inherently beneficial use, commercial affordable housing is subject to a less stringent standard for obtaining use variance relief.  In support of this holding, the Appellate division noted that the courts have previously recognized that affordable housing is an inherently beneficial use in a “variety of circumstances” and that housing needs are “clearly related to the general welfare under the zoning laws.”

The Appellate Division found that the zoning board construed previous opinions holding that affordable housing is an inherently beneficial use too narrowly.  The board had maintained that because all existing caselaw had addressed affordable housing constructed by public of non-profit entities, a commercial developer’s affordable housing could not qualify as an inherently beneficial use.  The Court directed that in analyzing whether a proposed use is inherently beneficial, “the focus of the inquiry is whether the proposal furthers the general welfare, not whether the undertaking is one that is not-for-profit or a commercial enterprise.”

In addition to remanding the application to the Board for consideration under the less stringent inherently beneficial use standard (the Sica test), the Appellate Division found the Board’s concerns regarding the negative criteria to be arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.  The Appellate Division noted that the Board’s rejection of the application, base on density and environmental concerns, was contradicted by the Township’s Fair Share plan, which included the project, minimized the environmental impact, and promised to amend the zoning and density for the project.