ABA Journal settles libel lawsuit brought by prominent attorney

Libel | Feature | November 21, 2003

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ABA Journal settles libel lawsuit brought by prominent attorney

  • The American Bar Association settled a libel lawsuit that hinged on whether calling an attorney a "fixer" was defamatory.

Nov. 21, 2003 -- The American Bar Association settled a libel lawsuit yesterday, agreeing to pay an undisclosed amount of money to attorney Richard A. Sprague. In addition, the association will publish a half-page apology in the February issue of ABA Journal and pay for the publication of Sprague's biography, written by Philadelphia Daily News reporter Joseph R. Daughen.

Sprague brought a libel lawsuit against the ABA, the ABA Journal and writer Terry P. Carter in 2001, for an October 2000 article in which Carter referred to Sprague as a "lawyer-cum-fixer." Carter reported that a Philadelphia district attorney hired Sprague, the DA's former boss, to assist in the prosecution of a police officer for the shooting of an unarmed black teenager.

The crux of the libel case involved the interpretation of the word "fixer." Sprague alleged that the reference implied that he was engaged in illegal activity, namely bribing judges. The ABA, however, argued that the term was meant to compliment Sprague, by suggesting that he was a powerful legal strategist called in to handle complex litigation.

The Journal ran a clarification in the following month's issue, saying it "intended the reference to mean Sprague is known for his problem-solving skills in politically nuanced cases. The Journal did not intend to convey that Sprague has engaged in any unethical or illegal activity."

Sprague and his lawyer said the clarification did not go far enough, because it never mentioned the word "fixer."

The ABA pointed out in its answer to the libel complaint that major newspapers have called other prestigious attorneys "fixers" -- including Vernon Jordan and Bruce Lindsey, advisers to former President Bill Clinton. ABA lawyers initially argued that the suit should be dismissed because the reference to Sprague was incapable of defamatory meaning.

U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. disagreed, finding that the term "fixer" could have a defamatory meaning, and that the ABA Journal's use of the term was ambiguous. In July 2002, Yohn denied the ABA motion for dismissal on the grounds that Sprague could not prove "actual malice," the standard required in defamation cases involving public officials and public figures.

Actual malice is defined as a knowing or reckless disregard for the truth. A jury could conclude, Yohn found, that the ABA Journal article had been published with actual malice.

The trial was scheduled to begin Dec. 1, and Sprague had lined up an all-star cast of witnesses, including Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), former ABA President Jerome Shestack, federal Judge Micheal M. Baylson and Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, according to an article on law.com today.

In a joint press release with Sprague, the ABA stated that the parties had reached an "amicable resolution" of the case.

(Sprague v. American Bar Association) -- KM


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