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Friday, June 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

9/11 Firefighter Called a Bigot Loses Libel Suit

(CN) - The 9/11 responder who tried to block construction of a Muslim community center near Ground Zero cannot sue an opposing attorney for defamation, the D.C. Circuit ruled.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf sparked controversy in 2010 with a plan to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Rauf said the plan intended to improve Muslim-Western relations. Its center, the Cordoba House, was set to replace a 19th-century Italian Renaissance-style palazzo building that once housed a Burlington Coat Factory at 45-47 Park Place.

The building proposal included a preschool, a special needs center, a swimming pool, a 500-seat auditorium, art galleries and a top-floor sanctuary.

About a month after the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission refused to halt the project by granting the site landmark status, conservative legal activity Larry Klayman sued Imam Rauf on behalf of Vincent Forras, a former firefighter and self-described first responder during the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Their complaint against Rauf in New York challenged the community center as a nuisance and an assault that caused Forras emotional distress.

In his motion to dismiss the complaint, Rauf's attorney Adam Leitman Bailey said Forras had traded in his hero status "for fifteen minutes of fame as a nationally recognized bigot." The motion also called Klayman "an infamous publicity hound."

"His cause and his case have all the rationality of one who would seek to tear down New York City's Chinatown as vengeance for Pearl Harbor on the theory that all Asians are alike," Bailey wrote.

Rauf's attorney also compared Forras's religious intolerance to that of the Nazis.

Klayman lost a motion for sanctions and, later, the case.

Klayman and Forras then sued Rauf and Bailey in Washington for defamation, false light, assault and infliction of emotion distress, claiming that the language of the dismissal motion prompted radical Muslims to put a fatwa on them.

A federal judge dismissed the allegations based on the merits, and the D.C. Circuit affirmed Friday, but said its review stopped at the issue of jurisdiction.

"The complaint makes no plausible allegation of personal jurisdiction over Bailey, and the district court should have promptly dismissed the case on that basis," Judge Patricia Ann Millett wrote for the D.C. Circuit's three-judge panel.

None of the parties are D.C. residents, Bailey "never set foot in the District in the two decades prior to the lawsuit," and all of the alleged defamation occurred in New York courts and New York newspapers, the appeals court ruled.

The long-arm jurisdiction statute "requires both an injury inside the District, and that 'the defendant engages in some persistent course of conduct or derives substantial revenue from the District,'" according to Friday's ruling.

"Nothing in the complaint or the plaintiffs' argument even hints at such persisting conduct or benefit tied to the District," Millett wrote.

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