Man's defamation and abuse of process claims arising out of court pleading are reinstated
Frank Lawrence sued Caren Burdi and her law firm, after Burdi made disparaging comments about him during the pendency of a lawsuit against his employer. Lawrence had sought to become a lawyer and passed the bar exam, however, he was never passed by the character and fitness examiners. During the pendency of the lawsuit, Burdi suggested to his employer that she should be careful who she associated with. Burdi also filed Requests to Admit that alleged that Lawrence had two felony drug convictions and "cannot pass character and fitness" and was therefore denied admission to the bar. She refused to withdraw these allegations. The Judge ultimately held that the drug convictions were irrelevant and should be sealed, but that the bar passage requested admission might be marginally relevant and should not be "sealed."
Lawrence then filed a lawsuit for defamation and abuse of process, which the trial judge summarily dismissed, despite the fact that the drug claims were proved to be false and unsupported. The Court held that since the requested admissions were "part of the discovery process," the false statements were privileged courtroom communications not subject to defamation claims. The Court of Appeals disagreed and reinstated the claims.
The higher court pointed out that while all statements of opinion, like the hallway warning about "who you associate with" are merely "platitudes" and not actionable, a legal discovery document or pleading is only judicially privileged if it serves a legitimate relevant purpose. Words charging a commission of crime are defamatory per se, and in this case the requests to admit had no factual basis, were entirely false and served no "relevant, material or pertinent purpose" in the lawsuit. For that reason, aspersions to the character of a nonparty, who is also not a potential eyewitness, were not judicially privileged and may be the basis for a legal action.