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District court judge dismisses defamation claim over N.Y. Attorney General's press release

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A New York federal judge has ruled that a dentist acquitted of fraudulently billing Medicaid for services he never performed…

A New York federal judge has ruled that a dentist acquitted of fraudulently billing Medicaid for services he never performed will not be able to pursue a defamation claim against prosecutors who touted his indictment for a "million dollar Medicaid theft" in a press release.

Brooklyn dentist Leonard Morse was indicted in 2006 for larceny and ultimately acquitted the following year. He then sued the New York Attorney General's Office for defamation and other civil rights violations.

Chief U.S. District Judge Carol Amon wrote in an opinion released Tuesday that Morse did not show the press release issued by the state agency announcing the indictment was false, a necessary element of defamation.

Amon acknowledged the press release contained information not present in the indictment, namely the allegation that Morse submitted claims for denture work done on patients who did not wear dentures. But the allegation did not alter the accuracy of the statement enough to make it false, Amon concluded.

"Although the indictment did not specifically state that Morse was accused of submitting claims for services rendered to patients who did not wear dentures, it stated that he was alleged to have falsely billed various repair and replacement procedures on dentists," Amon wrote in her opinion. "The plain import of the press release was exactly that: that Morse was being accused of submitting claims to the state for services not rendered."

Two other claims Morse alleged in his complaint, that the press release violated his right to a fair trial and deprived him of a liberty interest without due process of law, were also dismissed by Amon.

Among the parties named in Morse's civil lawsuit are former state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Special Assistant Attorney General John Fusto, who was responsible for overseeing the investigation and prosecution of Morse's criminal case, as well as two other investigators. The 105-page lawsuit alleges a range of civil rights violations, including malicious prosecution, denial of the right to a fair trial and defamation.

Morse claimed in court filings that the press release stemmed from Spitzer’s attempt to prove he was tough on Medicaid fraud during his campaign for New York governor, and the press release caused significant negative press that forced him to close his dental practice.

The claims in Morse’s original lawsuit were curtailed in a series of rulings by Amon and Magistrate Judge Robert Levy. Jury selection on Morse’s remaining claim for denial of a right to fair trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 28 in the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn.