Judicial Watch Founder Trips in Defamation Suit
(CN) - Judicial Watch must face a civil lawsuit in Miami from its founder, but that venue is improper for claims against officers of the watchdog group, a federal judge ruled.
Larry Klayman, an attorney licensed in Florida, founded Judicial Watch in 1994, and soon gained national attention by filing several lawsuits against the Clinton administration.
Since then, his advocacy group has joined the Sierra Club in suing the George W. Bush administration for access to the meeting minutes of Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force, and successfully sued the Secret Service to obtain White House logs detailing visits by the convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Klayman has been less successful in other instances, including a federal lawsuit tossed earlier this year in which he tried to hold Facebook liable for hosting anti-Semitic pages championing a "third Palestinian Intifada."
But over the years, much of Judicial Watch's legal activity has involved it fighting Klayman who left the group in 2003 to run for the U.S. Senate.
In 2006, for instance, Klayman accused Judicial Watch of reneging on several aspects of his severance package. That lawsuit also claimed that the group's new president, Tom Fitton, lied about his academic credentials to win his appointment.
Most of the Klayman's claims were eventually dismissed. Judicial Watch then sued Klayman in a case that resulted in an October 2009 court finding that he had failed to reimburse the organization for more than $69,000 in personal expenses.
The most recent legal battle involves a claim that individual Judicial Watch officers maliciously spread a rumor that Klayman had been convicted of not paying child support. Klayman said the rumor aimed to undermine his efforts to challenge President Barack Obama's presidential eligibility in 2012.
He claimed that office administrator Constance Ruffley spread the rumor at the direction of Fitton and board members Paul Orfanedes and Christopher Farrell.
Birther-conspiracy theorist Orly Taitz was allegedly given this information because Klayman "had made it known he planned to file a high profile case in Florida involving the eligibility of President Barack Obama to run as a candidate in Florida in 2012," according to the court's summary of the claims.
"The false publication was done by each of the Defendants negligently and/or with the willful and malicious intent to harm Klayman personally and professionally in the South Florida community and elsewhere," U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga continued.
Klayman had filed the suit in the Southern District of Florida, but the defendants noted in a motion to dismiss that neither they nor Klayman resides in the district.
Indeed Klayman admitted that he recently moved to the Middle District of Florida, while the defendants live in Washington, D.C., and California.
Altonaga agreed Thursday that Klayman failed to satisfy the standard for establishing the court's jurisdiction over the acts alleged.
"The individual defendants do not have offices in Florida; Judicial Watch does," she wrote. "The individual defendants do not have licenses to do business in Florida; presumably Judicial Watch has necessary licenses, if any. The individual defendants do not have clients in Florida, nor are the individual defendants engaged in business activities here for pecuniary benefit. Long-arm statutes are strictly construed, and the text of the statute cannot be read as broadly as Klayman suggests, allowing a nonresident corporation's employees' activities to be considered the carrying on of a business venture by the employees in this state. As stated, Klayman's many arguments directed to Judicial Watch doing business in Florida are misdirected and fail to address the statutory language."
Klayman also failed to show specific jurisdiction flowed from the intentional tort that the individuals allegedly committed in Florida by sending an electronic, defamatory communication about a Florida resident into the state through the Internet.
"The individual defendants' affidavits show Ruffley made a statement to Taitz gleaned from publicly available information, and that Ruffley never expected Taitz to convey the information to others or to post it on any website," Altonaga wrote. "Ruffley did not discuss Klayman's conviction for a crime, but rather, his non-payment of child support. No person from Judicial Watch directed Ruffley to utter the information, nor did any of the other individual defendants know about it. Given that the individual defendants sufficiently challenged Klayman's assertions about what was uttered, the defendants' intentions, and the individual defendants' collective involvement in the defamatory statement, it was Klayman's burden to 'affirmatively support his' jurisdictional allegations and not merely rely on the allegations of the Amended Complaint. Because Klayman wholly failed to meet this burden, the corporate shield doctrine is fully applicable and the exception is not satisfied."
Altonaga took a wholly different view, however, of Klayman's claims against Judicial Watch itself, which she noted maintains an office and employees in the Southern District of Florida, while engaging in substantial activities in the district.
As a result, the venue is the proper one for Klayman's claims against the organization, according to the ruling.