I am rooting very hard for a Cleveland lawyer named Peter Pattakos in his efforts to overturn a trial court’s order requiring Pattakos to pay an opponent in a lawsuit nearly $11,000 in attorney fees as a sanction for conduct in a lawsuit where Pattakos was representing two plaintiffs in litigation against the English Nanny & Governess School.
What, I’m sure you’re asking, did Pattakos do to incur the wrath of the trial court? He told a reporter for the alternative weekly Scene that the case – which involved allegations that the school pressured the plaintiffs not to report an incident of sexual molestation they observed while on an assignment – might be of some public interest. Pattakos had the gall to invite the reporter – a friend of his by the way – to attend the opening statements. The Scene reporter wrote an article about the case – accurately based on the public filings -- which was published the day before trial began.
Three jurors saw the headline of the article, but, because they had been instructed not to read media accounts of the proceedings, they did not read the article itself. The judge examined the jurors and apparently was satisfied that they were not prejudiced by the headline and the trial proceeded. Unfortunately, while the trial was in progress, Pattakos was hospitalized and the court declared a mistrial. Once Pattakos was able to return to action, the court set a new trial date.
But before the rescheduled trial date, the defendant school asked the court to sanction Pattakos, arguing Pattakos was “responsible” for the Scene article. In response, the court issued the order sanctioning Pattakos.
Let me recap. A lawyer informs a reporter that a public trial is about to begin. The reporter reviews publicly available information and writes a story. The publication has no prejudicial impact on the jury. But the lawyer gets sanctioned. In what universe does that make sense? I’d say this is a “kill the messenger” result, but it is more accurate to say this was a “kill the guy who gave the messenger the heads up” scenario.
And putting aside the fact that the story had zero impact on the trial, there is the First Amendment to consider. Under certain very limited circumstances lawyers may be ordered to not to discuss highly confidential matters, but outside of those limited circumstances even we lawyers have a right to speak. And speak to the press. And be free from some knee jerk over reaction when we do.
Several media advocacy have filed a friend of the court brief in support of Mr. Pattakos. I hope they convince the appellate court to vacate this order. And I hope I do a more effective job rooting for Mr. Pattakos than I’ve done rooting for the Reds thus far.