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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Law & Order Libel Suit Still Floats

Several sources are reporting that a Manhattan Court made a ruling which allows attorney Ravi Batra to proceed with a $15 million libel suit against the creators of "Law & Order". The suit involves the airing of an episode ("Floater") depicting a "bald Indian-American" lawyer who bribes a judge, a Manhattan court has ruled.

Funny, they just aired this episode recently on TNT and in all honesty, I didn't know anything about this "Batra" guy until I heard now about this lawsuit. Maybe it was a big deal in the New York City area, but probably not likely by most other viewers.

Hmmm…I suspect somehow they’ll find a legal way to make this current lawsuit a “ripped from the headlines” story down the road….

Here’s the full story from Law.com:

“Attorney's $15 Million Libel Lawsuit Against 'Law & Order' Creators, NBC Goes Forward
Widespread media coverage of judicial corruption scandal was an additional factor in court's decision
Noeleen G. Walder
New York Law Journal
March 20, 2008

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Attorney Ravi Batra can proceed with a $15 million libel suit against the creators of "Law & Order" for airing an episode depicting a "bald Indian-American" lawyer who bribes a Brooklyn Supreme Court judge, a Manhattan court has ruled.

The lawyer filed the defamation action in 2004 against 35 defendants, including producer Dick Wolf and NBC Universal, claiming that an episode was based on a corruption scandal involving Justice Gerald Garson, matrimonial lawyer Paul Siminovsky and Batra.

In what she deemed the first "libel-in-fiction" claim to survive a summary motion in nearly 25 years, Acting Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Shafer held that viewers "would identify" a fictional lawyer character dubbed "Ravi Patel" with Batra "because of the uniqueness of [Batra's] name, ethnicity and appearance."

"Moreover, because of the widespread media coverage of the Garson/Siminovsky scandal, with which the accusations against [Batra] were inextricably intertwined, it would be reasonable for a viewer to associate Batra" with the "Law & Order" character, Shafer wrote in Batra v. Wolf, 116059/04.

Batra, an Indian-born lawyer, is a well-known figure in Brooklyn political circles. He was a member of the Kings County Democratic Party judicial screening committee and made former Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Clarence Norman Jr. of counsel to his firm.

After Garson was accused of according preferential treatment to Siminovsky, the judge told prosecutors that he could assist them in obtaining information about the sale of judgeships for $50,000 and upwards.

Garson subsequently wore a wire to a lunch with Batra, where he unsuccessfully tried to elicit incriminating statements from the attorney.

According to the decision, while Batra was never charged in connection with the judicial selection or bribery scandal, widespread media coverage of Batra ensued in the wake of Garson's arrest.

On May 3, 2003, the New York Post reported that then-Brooklyn Administrative Judge Ann Pfau had "warned fellow jurists to steer clear" of Batra. And a Nov. 11, 2003, New York Times article entitled "Cozying Up to Judges and Reaping Opportunity" characterized Batra as a "particularly potent force" who had a hand in selecting judges.

The day after publication of the Times article, the "Law & Order" episode in question was aired.

The episode, entitled "Floater," centered around the husband of a woman who turns up dead in the Hudson River. The husband's alibi leads police to uncover a corruption scandal involving a divorce lawyer and a judge at the courthouse where his wife worked.

The episode portrayed a bald Indian-American matrimonial attorney called "Ravi Patel," played by India-born actor Erick Avari, bribing a female Brooklyn Supreme Court justice.

"Because of the counterintuitive nature of a libel-in-fiction claim -- in which a plaintiff claims that something that is fictional is not factually accurate -- two separate elements of the traditional defamation claim converge," Shafer wrote.


Thus, she said that Batra had to demonstrate that the alleged defamation is "of and concerning" him and that viewers were "totally convinced the episode in all aspects as far as the plaintiff is concerned is not fiction at all," the judge wrote.

She added that generally "New York courts favor early adjudication of libel claims to protect freedom of speech from the chilling effect of unwarranted claims."

Moreover, she commented that no "libel-in-fiction claim has survived a summary motion in New York" during the nearly "25 years since the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the complaint in Springer v. Viking Press, 90 AD2d 315 (1st Dept. 1982), aff'd, 60 NY2d 916 (1983)."

In that case, the Appellate Division, 1st Department, dismissed the claim of a woman who lived on the same street and had the same name as a character in one chapter of a novel portrayed as a "whore" who engaged in "abnormal sexual activity."

Nonetheless, the judge rejected defendants' claims that similarities between Batra and the fictional Patel were "abstract."

When "Floater" aired, Batra alleged that he "was one of only six attorneys practicing law in New York City with the first name 'Ravi'" and that he resembled the character in terms of age and physical appearance, the judge noted.

Defendants concede that fewer than 500 New York City residents, and 20 lawyers in the country, have the name "Ravi," the judge added.

Shafer noted that viewers would not be aware of differences between the fictional attorney and Batra, including the fact that Batra does not specialize in divorce law and "is an upstanding member of the Bar."

"None of these facts would be known to a viewer, aware of Batra only through the media coverage, who recognized Floater's reference to the Garson/Siminovsky scandal despite changes in Garson's gender and Siminovsky's ethnicity."

The judge also distinguished the case from Springer because Batra was a "public figure" with respect to the judicial corruption scandal.

Given the "context in which 'Floater' was presented, extensive media coverage linking Batra to the Garson/Siminovsky scandal, there is a reasonable likelihood that the ordinary viewers, unacquainted with Batra personally, could understand Patel's corruption to be the truth about Batra," the judge concluded.

Batra's own law firm is representing him in the case. He said in an interview Wednesday that the "Law & Order" episode was a disservice to the "rule of law, defamed an innocent person (myself), and helped undermine public confidence in the judiciary."

Davis Wright Tremaine served as attorney for Wolf and did not immediately return a call for comment. A spokesperson for NBC did not return a call for comment.

When the suit was filed, NBC Universal issued a statement that, "This episode, like all 'Law & Order' episodes, is fiction."

Erik Avari played the lawyer in "Floater"

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samfan said...

I can't believe this! They should make an episode out of this one. The episode was just on TNT a few days ago and I didn't recognize him. I doubt this guy will beat NBC & L&O but we'll see. Keep us posted

Jack McCoy said...

Thank you for this information, thus, to follow, as, I live in France I not saw, can be, this episode.