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"Rogue lawyer" label may be libelous in context of article, court finds

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         GEORGIA         Libel         Jan 31, 2001    

“Rogue lawyer” label may be libelous in context of article, court finds

  • A court of appeals decision to reverse a summary judgment order gives a Georgia lawyer the chance to pursue his lawsuit against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

By reversing a decision in favor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Court of Appeals of Georgia (3rd Div.) on Jan. 25 said a jury should decide whether the newspaper exercised reasonable care when it published a story about a local attorney.

The newspaper ran an article in March 1998 in which it described Franklin R. Nix as a “rogue lawyer” who solicited business from people who already had lawyers. Included in the article with Nix were the names of attorneys charged with stealing clients’ money or convicted of felonies. The court of appeals said the article might “lead the reader to reasonably infer the Nix’s conduct had been criminal from the context of the entire article.”

Appellate Judge Frank M. Eldridge, writing for the three-judge panel, differentiated between ethical violations that Nix may have violated and accusations of criminal conduct. Eldridge ruled that the arrangement of facts went beyond a mere factual account of the proceeding by the comparison of Nix’s behavior with criminal conduct.

The decision revived Nix’s defamation claim against the Journal-Constitution, however, the court of appeals upheld the denied claims the lawyer asserted of invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The panel discounted the newspaper’s argument that its statements were opinion, and therefore not actionable. The court said the salient point was whether the article “can reasonably be interpreted as stating or implying defamatory facts about (Nix) and, if so, whether the defamatory assertions are capable of being proved false.”

If the newspaper decides to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, a petition for certiorari must be filed before Feb. 8.

(Nix v. Cox Enterprises, Inc.; Media Counsel: Peter Canfield, Dow, Lohnes & Albertson) DB

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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