A federal judge in Maryland this week followed through on a previous warning to sanction a lawyer best known for representing Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) in a series of failed defamation lawsuits against media companies, saying the lawyer’s latest case against CNN was “frivolous” in nature.
U.S. District Judge Richard Bennet, an appointee of George W. Bush, ruled that attorney Steve Biss had “unreasonably and vexatiously” attempted to continue litigating a lawsuit against the news network after the case had already been dismissed with prejudice for failing to state a claim in March. Despite that ruling, Biss filed an amended complaint that the court went on to describe as “nothing more than a repetition of the original complaint with no new material factual allegations.”
The original complaint — filed on behalf of Nunes’s senior aide Derek Harvey against CNN, former Rudy Giuliani business associate Lev Parnas, and Parnas’s attorney Joseph Bondy — stemmed from a November 2020 CNN report that said Parnas was prepared to provide Congress with testimony in connection with Donald Trump’s first impeachment proceeding. CNN reported that Parnas would testify, in effect, that Nunes met with former Ukrainian prosecutor Victor Shokin “to discuss digging up dirt of Joe Biden.”
In the initial complaint, Harvey alleged that the defendants falsely accused him of participating in an effort to aid and abet the commission of criminal, unethical, and dishonest conduct. He sought punitive damages and an order prohibiting the defendants from continuing to repeat false claims on the basis that they constituted defamation and false light invasion of privacy.
Harvey and Biss initially argued that CNN made 20 defamatory statements, but later filed an amended complaint that narrowed that number down to five. However, Judge Bennet concluded that even the trimmed down complaint contained the same “manifest deficiencies” regarding the statements in question which lacked “defamatory meaning” and failed to “plausibly allege material falsity” and “actual malice.”
“This Court determined Harvey and his counsel engaged in bad faith conduct in filing the last-minute Amended Complaint in this case, joining a ‘chorus’ of courts sanctioning one of the Plaintiff’s attorneys, Steven Biss,” the ruling stated.
Judge Bennet concluded that CNN’s request for $21,437 in attorney’s fees was reasonable under the circumstances.
“As this Court explained in its Memorandum Opinions dismissing both the original Complaint and ultimately the Amended Complaint, this case involves the allegations of a public official seeking to collect damages from a news organization for its coverage of the first impeachment of former President Donald J. Trump,” Bennet wrote. “In filing the Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint, CNN’s counsel thoroughly established that, despite the Plaintiff’s amendments to the original Complaint, the remaining five allegedly defamatory statements failed to meet each of the requirements of a defamation claim.”
Bennet in February had said Harvey’s case “closely parrots” allegations in federal lawsuits that Biss filed on Nunes’ behalf.
Biss was previously sanctioned by the Virginia State Bar and suspended from practicing law for one year in 2008 for “a deliberately wrongful act that reflects adversely on his fitness to practice law.”
Biss did not immediately respond to a request for comment. If he provides a response, we will update this report.
Read the full ruling below.
[photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]
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