MANHATTAN (CN) — Opening the discovery floodgates in a defamation case against the billionaire CEO of Marvel Entertainment, a judge said Isaac Perlmutter should have known better than to claim privilege over emails he sent from his work account.
Perlmutter was hit with the subpoena in Florida after a vicious letter campaign in his upscale condominium community, Sloan's Curve of Palm Beach, painted fellow resident Harold Peerenboom as a child molester, killer and anti-Semite.
Peerenboom believes that Perlmutter is behind the hate mail, saying the feud erupted from a 2013 quarrel over who should run the tennis center in Sloan's Curve.
Because of Marvel's headquarters in Manhattan, Peerenboom went to the Manhattan Supreme Court to enforce the subpoena late last year.
Though Perlmutter intervened with three separate motions for protective orders, Justice Nancy Bannon shot most of them down on Oct. 17. Since Perlmutter knowingly sent emails that third parties at Marvel might scan, it is inarguable that the CEO had minimal privacy expectations, the court found.
Marvel's handbook on computer usage, as drafted by its corporate parents at the Walt Disney Co., makes clear that any email sent, received or stored on company assets "are company, and [it] reserve[s] the right to monitor their use," the Oct. 17 ruling states.
Peerenboom's attorney applauded the judge in a statement on the ruling.
"We are gratified by the court's well-reasoned decision," said Marc Kasowitz, an attorney for Peerenboom with the Miami firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman. "Mr. Peerenboom looks forward to presenting the evidence in this case to a jury and vindicating his reputation."
The Perlmutters released a statement through their publicists indicating plans to appeal.
"While it doesn't change the fact that there is no evidence to support Mr. Peerenboom's baseless lawsuit, we believe this decision sets a dangerous precedent and is contrary to law, and we intend to seek further review," the Perlmutters said. "The attorney-client privilege and other privileges addressed in the court's decision are sacrosanct legal principles that should not be so significantly eroded, especially on behalf of Harold Peerenboom, a serial litigant who was recently found by a Florida court to have illegally collected and tested the Perlmutters' DNA and lied about it in his testimony."
Though the judge rejected Perlmutter's claims of attorney-client and work-product privileges, she said the emails Perlmutter received from his wife, Laura, warrant a closer look.
Just like Perlmutter cannot be compelled to testify against his wife, the ruling says he likewise cannot waive Laura's marital privilege without her consent "by sharing their confidential communications with third parties."
"Research reveals no case in which the privilege was vitiated where one spouse was unaware that third parties had knowledge of or access t the particular communication," the ruling continues.
Bannon said Peerenboom has made no allegation that Laura Perlmutter worked for Marvel or Disney, or was aware of Disney's policy on company emails.
As such, "Perlmutter cannot unilaterally waive the marital privilege applicable to communication between Laura and him merely by communicating with her via the Marvel server," the ruling states.
Bannon did concede, however, that Peerenboom is entitled to any relevant emails the Perlmutters exchanged "that are not confidential in nature."
To make this determination, Bannon directed Marvel to produce copies of nine items so that she can review the documents in camera to determine whether they are privileged.
It's unclear how much time Marvel will have to turn over the communications.
In a past filing with the Palm Beach County Circuit Court, Perlmutter's defense team characterized Peerenboom's case as a contrived "witch hunt."
That 2015 motion by Black Srebnick attorney Jared Lopez says Peerenboom's "fixation on the Perlmutters" caused him to overlook "other, more likely suspects."
Marvel has not returned a request for comment at press time.