Court reinstates defamation suit of attorney described as ‘ambulance chaser’
Calling an attorney an “ambulance chaser” whose only interest is in “slam dunk cases” can be defamatory, a federal appeals court has ruled.
New York-based attorney Leonard Flamm, who handles sex-discrimination cases, sued the American Association of University Women and the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund for defamation after the AAUW published a legal directory containing the following statement under Flamm's entry:
“Mr. Flamm handles sex discrimination cases in the area of pay equity, harassment, and promotion. Note: At least one plaintiff has described Flamm as an 'ambulance chaser' with interest only in 'slam dunk cases.' “
Of the 275 attorneys listed in the directory, Flamm's listing was the only one with a negative comment.
In November 1997, Flamm sued, contending that the statement in the directory was “irresponsibly false, libelous per se, and recklessly defamatory.”
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit on Dec. 10, 1998, ruling that the “distasteful” statement “was clearly an expression of opinion protected by the First Amendment and the New York state constitution.”
The court ruled that the description “was the subjective reaction of one person to Flamm and not a statement of objective facts regarding Flamm's legal ethics or competence as a lawyer.”
However, on appeal, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling in Flamm v. American Association of University Women, finding that the statement could reasonably be understood to imply that Flamm had acted unethically.
“In light of the inclusion of the statement in an otherwise fact-laden directory, the description of Flamm as an 'ambulance chaser' might imply to the reader of the directory that Flamm engages in the unethical solicitation of clients,” Judge Thomas J. Meskill wrote for the court in its Jan. 4 opinion.
The unanimous three-judge panel said that the important legal issue is “whether the challenged statement can reasonably be construed to be stating or implying facts about the defamation plaintiff.”
The appeals court concluded that the challenged statement “reasonably implies that [Flamm] has engaged in unethical solicitation.” The appeals court emphasized that this was the “only negative comment” in the directory.
The AAUW contended that the term was protected hyperbole and a commonplace epithet, such as the word “scab” in labor disputes, which could not be the cause of legal action. However, the appeals court distinguished this context from the labor-union setting, writing: “Exaggerated rhetoric may be commonplace in labor disputes, but a reasonable reader would not expect similar hyperbole in a straightforward directory of attorneys and other professionals.”
The appeals court noted that “it remains for the jury to decide whether the challenged statement was in fact understood in a defamatory sense.”
Laura Handman, attorney for the AAUW, declined comment until she had studied the court's opinion. She said that no decision had been made on whether to appeal.
Norman Mednick, Flamm's attorney, said: “In New York calling someone an 'ambulance chaser' is accusing them of a crime. It is not protected opinion but a statement of fact that can be proven false. It is similar to calling a doctor a 'butcher.' “