Court tosses out defamation suit by attorney labeled ‘ambulance chaser’

Tuesday, December 15, 1998

A federal judge in New York recently tossed out the defamation claim of a lawyer who was referred to as an “ambulance chaser” who will take only “slam dunk cases” in a professional directory.

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 groups' 1997 legal directory listed the following statement:

“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.'”

Flamm received the only negative comment in the directory's 275 listings.

In November 1997, Flamm sued contending that the statement in the directory was “irresponsibly false, libelous per se, and recklessly defamatory.”

However, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin ruled last week in Flamm v. American Association of University Women that the “distasteful” statement “was clearly an expression of opinion protected by the First Amendment and the New York state constitution.”

Under New York law, a plaintiff trying to prove defamation must show that a defendant made a false and defamatory statement of fact about the plaintiff to a third person resulting in injury to the plaintiff.

The legal question for the judge was whether the statement about Flamm constituted a false and defamatory statement of fact.

In order to be false and defamatory, the statement must be reasonably interpreted as defamatory and must not be a protected expression of opinion.

Chin ruled that the statement could reasonably be interpreted as defamatory. “It is beyond pale that calling a lawyer an 'ambulance chaser' is a seriously derogatory comment that calls the lawyer's competence, ethics and character into question.”

However, Chin also ruled that the statement in the legal directory “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.”

The judge concluded that the statements were “nonactionable opinion,” writing: “I hold that no reasonable reader would have believed that the statement was conveying objective, factual information about Flamm.”

Flamm said that the judge's decision was “one-sided” and “galling.”

“How can being accused of a misdemeanor (ambulance chasing is illegal under New York law) be a protected expression of opinion that does not imply facts?” he asked. “In a professional directory, a listing like this conveys actual facts; it is not mere rhetorical hyperbole.”

Flamm said that he would “definitely appeal this decision.”