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Top court affirms City Paper’s win in club owner’s defamation lawsuit

The Baltimore City Paper did not defame a former nightclub owner by reporting that some people thought he could have been involved in a double murder, Maryland’s highest court held Monday.

In what attorneys for both sides are calling a victory for news media, the unanimous Court of Appeals said Maryland’s fair reporting and commentary laws protect the newspaper and its reporter from liability for fair and accurate coverage based on court documents and testimony, even if the resulting articles contained potentially defamatory material.

Nicholas Piscatelli, a co-owner of the former Redwood Trust nightclub, failed to show that the articles by reporter Van Smith fell short of that standard, the Court of Appeals said.

The lawsuit centered on two articles Smith wrote about the criminal prosecution of Anthony Jerome Miller for the murder of Redwood Trust manager Jason Convertino and a friend, Sean Wisniewski, in Convertino’s home in April 2003.

Speculation that Piscatelli was involved had made its way into discovery documents filed by the state in Miller’s prosecution, and Miller’s defense lawyer tried to cast aspersions on the club owner at trial.

Miller was found guilty of the murders on March 15, 2007.

That December, Piscatelli sued the City Paper and Smith in Baltimore City Circuit Court. The circuit court ruled in the paper’s favor without a trial, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed.

The top court then agreed to review the case. It heard argument in October and upheld the lower courts’ decisions on Monday.

“The fair reporting privilege is a qualified privilege to report legal and official proceedings that are, in and of themselves, defamatory, so long as the account is fair and substantially accurate,” Judge Glenn T. Harrell Jr. wrote for the high court. “The privilege arises from the public’s interest in having access to information about official proceedings and public meetings.”

The newspaper’s reporting also is protected from liability because it “honestly express[ed] a fair and reasonable opinion or comment on matters of legitimate public interest,” Harrell added. “[S]uch discussion is in furtherance of an interest of social importance, and therefore it is held entitled to protection even at the expense of uncompensated harm to the plaintiff’s reputation.”

Attorney Peter F. Axelrad, who represented the newspaper and Smith, said Monday’s decision sends “a strong message” not just to the media but to anyone who blogs about criminal trials and other official proceedings.

“Fair comment means fair comment,” said Axelrad, of Council, Baradel, Kosmerl & Nolan PA in Annapolis. “Whenever there is a hitchy story or a tough story, this will remind everybody that you need to be careful, that you need to be fair.”

Piscatelli’s attorney, despite his loss at the high court, said the decision “makes important law” regarding the legal protection journalists have when reporting on court documents and proceedings.

“It defines the proper boundaries in a situation like this when you’re reporting on a case,” added Peter A. Prevas, of Prevas & Prevas in Baltimore. “Once that memo gets into the court file, then it can be utilized.”

Jennifer Marsh, City Paper’s publisher, said, “We’re happy with the Court of Appeals’ decision and we’re looking forward to putting this behind us and getting on with things.”

The stranger and the lawyer

In his lawsuit, Piscatelli claimed he was defamed by the articles’ implication that he was involved in the killings. He said the articles were based on unfounded comments and insinuation.

According to court documents, a stranger approached Convertino’s mother at a benefit for her grandson shortly after the killing and told her that Piscatelli was behind the murders.

She also said the reporter, Smith, told her he had heard from unnamed sources that Piscatelli had threatened to kill Convertino.

At Miller’s trial, Piscatelli was a witness, and defense counsel questioned him about his potential motives for killing the men. The attorney said Piscatelli suspected Convertino of stealing money and that Convertino planned to leave to work for a competitor.

Smith, the City Paper reporter, wrote the challenged articles in December 2006 and June 2007, fleshing out the details of what Convertino’s mother had heard about Piscatelli. Smith also interviewed Piscatelli, who denied any wrongdoing.

“Although perhaps an unflattering account of Piscatelli’s relationship with Convertino, respondents’ report was an accurate, fair account of Piscatelli’s testimony,” Harrell wrote. “Piscatelli failed to advance any facts to demonstrate otherwise.”

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Piscatelli v. Van Smith et al, CA No. 18 Sept. Term 2011. Reported. Opinion by Harrell, J. Argued Oct. 7, 2011. Filed Jan. 23 2012.

Issue:

Did the appellate court err in affirming summary judgment in a defamation action against a newspaper and one of its reporters?

Holding:

No; even if the articles contained material that would otherwise be defamatory, the publication was protected by the fair reporting and fair comment privileges.

Counsel:

Peter A. Prevas for petitioner; Peter F. Axelrad for respondents.

RecordFax # 12-0123-21.