‘Spotlight’ attorney handed a win, along with a scolding

Pat Murphy//September 9, 2022

While a federal judge in Pennsylvania had harsh words for Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston attorney has been cleared of liability for defaming a geometry teacher by pressing allegedly false accusations of child sexual abuse brought by a former student.

In an Aug. 26 order, U.S. District Court Judge Mark A. Kearney ruled that plaintiff Matthew Ralston could not recover damages from Garabedian for defaming him in the course of representing Kurtis N. Poulos, a student of Ralston’s in the early 1990s.

In reaching his decision, Kearney openly questioned whether the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1964 ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan ever intended the actual malice doctrine to protect someone like Garabedian, who the judge found had issued “abhorrent” allegations about Ralston while never intending to allow those allegations to be tested in court.

“Yet the actual malice doctrine protects Attorney Garabedian because he avoided knowing too much about Mr. Poulos’ story by conducting a minimal investigation which did not reveal the facts’ falsity and instead relied on his self-confidence in detecting credibility when seeking a million-dollar payday,” Kearney wrote.

A 2014 Lawyers Weekly Lawyer of the Year, Garabedian’s efforts representing victims of sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese were portrayed by Stanley Tucci in the 2016 Academy Award Best Picture winner “Spotlight.”

Garabedian’s client, Poulos, claimed that Ralston sexually assaulted him on a number of occasions in the early 1990s at a boarding school in Pottstown. In 2018, Garabedian sent two demand letters to the school’s headmaster and board members demanding $1 million. In the demand letters, Garabedian detailed the nature of the abuse, which allegedly occurred from 1993 to 1995.

Ralston responded by suing Garabedian and Poulos for defamation.

Kearney conducted a bench trial in January. In his findings of fact and conclusions of law issued last month, Kearney concluded Poulos’ account of abuse did not withstand close scrutiny. The judge found the plaintiff “published false allegations to Attorney Garabedian and authorized Attorney Garabedian’s republications of the allegations in the 2018 Letters.”

Accordingly, the judge found Poulos — who passed away in April 2022 — liable for defamation to the tune of $50,000 in “presumed damages” under Pennsylvania law.

Turning to the claim against Garabedian, Kearney wrote that, under Pennsylvania law, plaintiff Ralston was required to prove either actual malice or actual reputational injury to recover damages against Garabedian. The judge noted that Pennsylvania follows the Supreme Court’s actual malice standard formulated under Sullivan and its progeny.

As a threshold matter, Kearney ruled Pennsylvania’s “judicial privilege” doctrine did not shield Garabedian from liability because the 2018 demand letters were sent when attorney and client never seriously considered filing a lawsuit due to the expiration of Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations.

“Attorney Garabedian sent the 2018 Letters hoping to obtain a quick settlement of ‘claims’ Attorney Garabedian and Mr. Poulos agreed they would not file,” Kearney wrote.

The judge nonetheless found that Ralston had not suffered reputational injury because no one took seriously Poulos’ claims of sexual abuse.

Kearney determined that “negligence counterintuitively” protected Garabedian from facing liability under the remaining ground for defamation because the evidence adduced at trial precluded a finding of actual malice.

“Ralston cleared his name through our defamation trial, but still cannot recover from Attorney Garabedian because he could not adduce clear and convincing evidence of Attorney Garabedian’s disbelief [in his client’s claims],” Kearney wrote.

But the judge expressed his uneasiness with that result.

“Attorney Garabedian’s conduct is a long reach from the concern with a robust press reporting on public figures in Sullivan and its progeny. But this is the law on reckless disregard we must follow today,” the judge wrote. “Attorney Garabedian’s ignorance of Mr. Poulos’s incredibility tells us quite a bit about Attorney Garabedian’s practice — but it does not constitute actual malice through reckless disregard under the governing law.”

The plaintiff’s attorney, Lane R. Jubb Jr. of The Beasley Firm in Philadelphia, says he and his client are weighing an appeal of the court’s decision regarding the claim against Garabedian.

“I’m not sure that the court’s findings of fact don’t come down in our favor as to actual malice,” Jubb says. “Additionally, it is very difficult for any person to imagine a scenario where you have a legal standard that only encourages conscious avoidance of facts by conducting minimal to no investigation, like the court found here.”

Jubb adds that his client has, in fact, suffered reputational injury.

“The [position taken by the court was] that you can be of such high character and standing in the community that you couldn’t possibly be injured by these accusations,” Jubb says. “In reality, the mere existence of the allegations makes Mr. Ralston unemployable in any other context.”

Boston personal injury attorney Matthew J. Fogelman says the ultimate result reached by the court makes sense.

“The finding of no actual malice on the part of attorney Garabedian seemed correct,” Fogelman says.

Taking no position on Garabedian’s handling of his client’s case, Fogelman notes that lawyers have to vet their clients and their clients’ allegations, “but after a certain point you have to trust what a client is telling you.”

Garabedian is represented by Candidus K. Dougherty and Jeffrey B. McCarron, of Swartz Campbell in Philadelphia. Neither Garabedian nor his lawyers responded to requests for comment.

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