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COLES v. WASHINGTON FREE WEEKLY

March 27, 1995

JOHN M. COLES, Plaintiff,
v.
WASHINGTON FREE WEEKLY, INC., et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: STANLEY SPORKIN

 This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Washington Free Weekly, Inc.'s and Defendant William Gifford's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff John Coles filed this action for defamation after the Washington City Paper ("City Paper") published a feature article in April 1993 written by reporter William Gifford about the efforts by a group of former Diamond cabdrivers to regain control of Diamond Cab Company. Plaintiff, a lawyer, represented the cabdrivers before the District of Columbia Taxi Commission. Plaintiff claims that the article contains implicit and express defamation, portraying him as an incompetent, overpaid lawyer who required substantial assistance from his client and who was not familiar with appropriate dress standards for court.

 FACTUAL BACKGROUND

 Several Diamond cabdrivers lead by Ata Farahpour started an inquiry when Diamond Cab Company began changing the way that it did business. The Company, which had been a non-profit corporation for 61 years, had been taken over by less than 20 shareholders, who were previously board members of the nonprofit corporation, and turned into a for-profit corporation. The new for-profit Company required the drivers to repaint their cabs at their own expense and stopped paying certain death benefits. Whatever membership rights the cabdrivers had previously been accorded were substantially reduced.

 Diamond Cab Company fired several of the drivers for creating dissension and attempting to compete with the company. The drivers ignored this action and continued to operate their cabs. The owners then filed suit against the drivers for trademark infringement and unlawful competition. In response, the drivers filed their own complaint with the D.C. Taxi Commission for wrongful termination. In February 1992, after losing a battle in the trademark case, the drivers, including Ata Farahpour, hired Plaintiff Coles to represent them in two related unlawful competition actions before the Superior Court and in the drivers' claims for wrongful termination before the Taxi Commission. At the time he was hired, Coles was a full-time lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission and took on the representation as "outside" legal work.

 Reporter William Gifford wrote a seven page, one hundred and six paragraph article, entitled "The Keys to Diamond Cab," detailing the history of the company and the battle between the drivers and the "new owners." Plaintiff objects to his portrayal in the eight paragraphs that are somehow related to his representation of the drivers, claiming that the article implies that he was "incompetent, unprofessional and ill-prepared." Plaintiff's Opposition at 3.

 Plaintiff specifically charges that the following statements constitute actionable defamation:

 
1. "With four other drivers, he [Mr. Farahpour] formed the ITOA Legal Defense Fund, soliciting contributions from Diamond's ranks of nearly 400 drivers. The donations of $ 20, $ 50, $ 100, and more were recorded in a green ledger, and most of the money has gone to pay their lawyer, John Coles."
 
3. "Throughout the four-day hearing, both sides seemed to use confusion as a weapon. Coles repeatedly neglected to pursue key lines of questioning, while reiterating a vague claim that as a nonprofit, ITOA was somehow 'sacred.'"
 
4. "Throughout the hearing, Farahpour sat by Coles and occasionally interjected bits of his own commentary, unbidden by his lawyer or the panel. This is his case, after all. He did the legwork to gather evidence, he researched the law."
 
5. "Over the next few months, Farahpour made eight trips to Dover to search corporate records and studied every subparagraph of D.C. taxicab and corporate law."

 Complaint, P 5.

 SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS

 Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment "shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleadings are not enough to prevent issuance of summary judgment. The adverse party's response to the summary judgment motion must "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 56(e).

 The Supreme Court set forth the governing standards for issuance of summary judgment in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986). In Celotex, the Supreme Court recognized the vital need for summary judgment motions to the fair and efficient functioning of the justice system:

 
Summary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed "to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action." Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 1. . . .
 
Rule 56 must be construed with due regard not only for the rights of persons asserting claims and defenses that are adequately based in fact to have those claims and defenses tried to a jury, but also for the rights of persons opposing such claims and defenses to demonstrate in the manner provided by the Rule, prior to trial, that the claims and defenses have no factual basis.

 Id. at 327. (citation omitted).

 The plaintiff, as the non-moving party, is "required to provide evidence that would permit a reasonable jury to find" in his favor. Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 259 U.S. App. D.C. 115, 813 F.2d 1236, 1242 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (per curiam) (citing Celotex, supra). The moving party is entitled to summary judgment where "the non-moving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof." Celotex at 323.

 ANALYSIS AND DECISION

 The First Amendment is one of the great pillars of our democratic system of government established by our founding fathers. The freedom of the press protects the public's ability to inform itself about matters of public concern and engage in thoughtful debate. That being said, freedom of the press is not without certain limitations. Indeed, a large body of common and constitutional law has developed regarding these limitations, particularly in the field ...


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