Judge: Kushner company must reveal identities of real estate partners

Privacy Law

A federal judge in Maryland ruled Friday that Jared Kushner’s family real estate company could not keep secret the identities of its partners in Baltimore-area apartment complexes that are the subject of a class-action lawsuit by tenants.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in September, following a May article co-published by ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine that described how Kushner Companies have used highly aggressive tactics in pursuing payments from tenants and former tenants of 15 large apartment complexes it owns and manages in the Baltimore area.

The lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, alleges that the Kushner Companies’ real estate management arm and related corporate entities have been improperly inflating payments owed by tenants by charging them late fees that are often baseless and in excess of state limits and court fees that are not actually approved by any court. The suit alleges that the late fees and court fees set in motion a vicious cycle in which rent payments are partly put toward the fees instead of the actual rent owed, thus deeming the tenant once again “late” on his or her rent payment, leading to yet more late fees and court fees. Tenants are pressured to pay the snowballing bills with immediate threat of eviction, the suit alleges.

Kushner Companies and its co-defendants sought to have the case transferred from state court to federal court, which would spare it from having to face an all-Baltimore City jury. To have this transfer approved, the defendants needed to show that none of their ownership partners were residents of Maryland. The defendants requested that their submission of the list of partners be sealed from public view, citing the high degree of media interest in Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser.

“Given the tenor of the media’s reporting of this case, including politically-motivated innuendo no doubt intended to disparage the First Family, there is foreseeable risk of prejudice to the privacy rights and reputations of innocent private investors,” wrote Westminster Management, Kushner Companies’ real estate management arm, in a court filing in November.

This request to seal the partners’ identities was challenged several weeks later in a joint filing by ProPublica, the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Baltimore TV station WMAR-TV. They argued that the press had a “presumptive right” to view court documents, and that the Kushner Companies had not identified the “compelling government interest” that is required to block public access.

In his ruling Friday, U.S. District Court Judge James K. Bredar stated that the high level of public interest in Kushner and his business associates if anything enhanced the case for maintaining access to the identities of the defendants in the case.

“The Defendants are no doubt correct that the presence of the Kushner (and therefore Trump) families in this case has raised its profile and attracted significant, though perhaps not ‘unprecedented,’ media attention,” Bedar wrote. “But increased public interest in a case does not, by itself, overcome the presumption of access. In fact, it would logically strengthen it, particularly when the interest is due to the presence of important public figures in the litigation. In such an instance, the public’s desire to evaluate the Court’s decision-making is likely augmented. And beyond this apparently inevitable media scrutiny, Defendants have largely relied on ‘vague superlatives’ and insinuations instead of demonstrating specific harms.”

Several recent news reports have given a hint of just how far-reaching the network of investors in the Maryland apartment complexes could be. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Kushner Companies last spring secured a $30 million equity investment in the Baltimore complexes and others of its holdings from Menora Mivtachim, one of Israel’s largest financial institutions, just as Jared Kushner was about to make his first official visit to Israel as President Trump’s designated broker of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. More recently, a New Yorker article described the Kushner Companies’ aggressive pursuit of Chinese investors in its real estate ventures.

In his ruling, Bedar gave the defendants until Feb. 9 to provide the list of their ownership partners. The Kushner Companies could opt instead to return the case to the Circuit Court in Baltimore, if the firm decides the downsides of having to disclose the investment partners in the complexes outweigh the downsides of having the case heard by a Baltimore jury.

A request for comment from Kushner Companies’ spokesman was not immediately returned Friday afternoon. A lawyer for the plaintiff tenants, Andy Freeman, said he and his colleagues on the case had not yet gotten any indication of how Kushner Companies planned to proceed.

“We’re pleased with the ruling. We don’t think that parties to federal litigation should be able to conceal their identity,” Freeman said. He added: “This is just the first step in moving toward justice for the tenants.”

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Five justices are expected to miss Trump’s State of the Union address

U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS justices

Only four justices are expected to be present Tuesday evening when President Donald Trump gives his State of the Union address.

Justices who will attend are Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Neil Gorsuch, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan. CNN and the Washington Examiner have the news.

Ginsburg had criticized Trump during the presidential campaign and later expressed regret for her comments. Twitter commenters criticized Ginsburg for her planned absence on Tuesday, but they ignored the fact that Ginsburg had scheduled two public appearances in Rhode Island before the date for Trump’s address was announced, the National Law Journal reports. She also missed Trump’s address to Congress last year.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony M. Kennedy had attended Trump’s address last year, but they won’t attend this year because of long-standing travel plans.

Several justices have missed prior State of the Union addresses, according to a study cited by the National Law Journal. In the early 2000s the only justice who attended for three years in a row was Breyer.

Justice Clarence Thomas has said he doesn’t attend because of all of the partisanship, while the late Justice Antonin Scalia had avoided the addresses because he considered them “a childish spectacle.”

In 2010 Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. mouthed the words “not true” when President Barack Obama criticized the Citizens United ruling during a State of the Union address. He concluded afterward that it is better to stay away from the speeches.

Third paragraph clarified to state that Trump’s address was to Congress last year.

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Judges refuse to toss suits claiming law firm ads interfered with timeshare contracts

Law Firms

Federal judges in Tennessee and Florida have refused to completely dismiss lawsuits claiming two law firms sought to interfere with timeshare contracts through ads seeking clients who want to dump their timeshares.

Both suits were filed by Diamond Resorts International, a timeshare developer managing more than 420 membership resorts, according to Law360 stories here and here.

The Florida suit was filed against Orlando lawyer Austin Aaronson and his firm Aaronson, Austin. In a Jan. 26 ruling, U.S. District Judge Roy Dalton Jr. of Orlando tossed RICO and malicious prosecution claims by Diamond Resorts, but allowed claims for false advertising under the Lanham Act, tortious interference with contract, trade libel and deceptive trade practices.

Diamond Resorts had claimed Aaronson and his law firm solicited timeshare members in an advertising campaign that weaves a false narrative, causing timeshare members to stop contract payments and subjecting Diamond Resorts to baseless arbitration proceedings.

Aaronson had claimed his firm’s advertising was not false or misleading because it constituted opinion or puffery. Dalton said the issue could not be resolved at the pleading stage.

The Tennessee suit was filed against the Castle Law Group, its partner Judson Phillips and related entities and people. In a Jan. 24 decision, District Judge U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger of Nashville denied a motion to dismiss by Sean Austin, a nonlawyer who was chief operations officer at the Castle Law Group, according to a Diamond Resorts press release.

The Tennessee suit claims the law firm promises timeshare owners relief from timeshare operations when those promises are not kept. Lured by the promises, timeshare owners stop making their contractual payments, the lawsuit alleges.

Austin responded that the defendants gave consumers accurate information. Trauger said Austin had raised a fact issue that can’t be determined in a motion to dismiss.

The Tennessee suit alleges interference with contract, interference with business relations, civil conspiracy, Lanham act violations, violation of Tennessee consumer law, and inducement of breach of contract.

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Suit claims Facebook had duty to warn of disturbing posts by man who posted fatal shooting video

Internet Law

Robert Godwin Sr. width=

Robert Godwin Sr. and his daughter, plaintiff Debbie Godwin. Photo from Facebook.

A lawsuit filed last Friday contends Facebook’s data mining creates a special relationship with its users that includes a duty to warn of disturbing posts that threaten violence.

The suit was filed by the estate of 74-year-old Cleveland retiree Robert Godwin Sr., who was shot to death last Easter in a video broadcast on Facebook, report the Associated Press, Cleveland.com, BuzzFeed News, Fox 8 Cleveland and WKBW.

The shooter, 37-year-old Steve Stephens, killed himself two days after the murder during a police chase.

Stephens had posted on Facebook that he had lost everything he ever had due to gambling. “I not going to go into details,” he wrote, “but I’m a my breaking point I’m really on some murder shit. FB you have 4 minutes to tell me why I shouldn’t be on death row!!!! I’m dead serious #teamdeathrow.”

The suit, filed in Cleveland, contends that Facebook collects information on its users to generate billions of dollars in revenue. That business decision to take control of its users’ information and then to profit from it creates a duty of care that was breached when Facebook took no action in response to Stephens’ threat of violence, according to the complaint.

The suit alleges negligence and failure to warn by Facebook and related defendants that assist its data mining operation. The complaint also seeks damages for wrongful death from the Facebook defendants and Stephens’ estate.

Facebook associate general counsel Natalie Naugle gave this statement to Fox 8: “We want people to feel safe using Facebook, which is why we have policies in place prohibiting direct threats, attacks, serious threats of harm to public and personal safety and other criminal activity. We give people tools to report content that violates our policies, and take swift action to remove violating content when it’s reported to us. We sympathize with the victim’s family, who suffered such a tragic and senseless loss.”

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To cut the jail population, reduce the number of people on probation and parole, reports say

Criminal Justice

hands bars jail

Two reports released Monday argue that the number of people on probation and parole should be cut in half, which would in turn reduce the number of people locked up for low-level violations of their community supervision.

Probation and parole were intended to be alternatives to incarceration, according to the lead author of the reports, Vincent Schiraldi, senior research scientist at the Justice Lab at Columbia University. But “they actually contribute to mass incarceration by creating trip-wires to revocation and reincarceration,” he said in a press release. The Associated Press has coverage.

One of the Justice Lab reports is national in scope and the other deals with New York.

According to the national report, community corrections has expanded almost four-fold since 1980 without a corresponding increase in resources. The lack of funding leads community corrections officers to default to imprisonment when people violate the terms of their supervision.

See also: Jay-Z op-ed: Rapper Meek Mill’s sentence shows how justice system ‘entraps and harasses’ blacks

In New York City, the number of people locked up in jail for state parole violations jumped by 15 percent even as other jail populations declined by double deigits, according to the New York report.

Since governments are unlikely to increase funding for probation and parole, “the only realistic alternative is to reduce the number of people under community corrections,” an introduction to the national report argues. Twenty leading corrections administrators signed the report.

“Cutting back on parole is not some progressive pipe dream,” Schiraldi writes in an op-ed for the New York Daily News. “States around the country have come up with innovative ways to do it while advancing public safety.”

In Arizona, for example, people who were under community supervision were given early discharge for good behavior. The result was a 29 percent decline in violations.

Speedy hearings should also be required before someone can be incarcerated for a technical violation, Schiraldi says.

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