Appeals court lifts $11K sanction against lawyer for telling reporter about upcoming trial

First Amendment

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An Ohio appeals court has overturned a sanction of nearly $11,000 imposed against a Cleveland lawyer who alerted a reporter about an upcoming trial.

The trial judge who sanctioned lawyer Peter Pattakos said the disclosure was intended to discredit a nanny school sued by his client and created a risk of prejudicing the jury. But the Ohio 8th District Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the lawyer’s communication was protected by the First Amendment, Forbes reports in a recent article on the court’s June 8 decision (PDF). wrote about the decision last month.

Pattakos provided a Cleveland Scene reporter with public information about the case and told him about the scheduling of the trial, the court said. Civil liberties and media groups filed amicus briefs in the case that supported Pattakos.

The judge who sanctioned Pattakos had said the lawyer’s actions constituted “frivolous conduct” under a professional conduct rule that allows parties harmed by such conduct to seek attorney fees. The law defines frivolous conduct as action that serves to harass or maliciously injure another party to a civil action or is for another improper purpose.

The trial judge said that, in seeking news coverage, Pattakos’ intent was to injure the defendants outside of the litigation process.

The appeals court said the rule usually is invoked in cases involving pleadings or discovery. “It should not be held that merely urging a media outlet to cover a trial constitutes frivolous conduct,” the court said.

Pattakos represented a nanny who claimed a nanny school blackballed her for reporting sexual abuse by a client, and also represented a school employee who claimed she was fired because she refused to help discredit the nanny.

Pattakos’ clients were awarded $390,000 in the case. The appeals court ordered the trial judge to reconsider a decision to to reduce the award.

The case is Cruz v. English Nanny & Governess School.

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