January 23, 2009

Judge Dismisses Libel Suit Against Cornell

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Earlier this month, a federal judge in California dismissed the second of two libel lawsuits filed by Cornell alum against the University that sought millions of dollars in damages. The lawsuit alleged that Cornell and its attorney acted improperly in responding to his original libel lawsuit in 2007.
On Jan. 6, United States District Court Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz ruled that Kevin Vanginderen’s ’83 case against Cornell could not go further in the legal process because Vanginderen did not sufficiently prove that his case was well-founded. The judge based his ruling on California’s “anti-SLAPP” legislation, which seeks to curb expensive, unfounded lawsuits against people engaged in protected First Amendment activities.
Kevin Vanginderen had filed the $10-million lawsuit in April 2008 as a response to how the University handled his original lawsuit for libel in October 2007. In that suit, he claimed that a 1983 Cornell Chronicle article describing his involvement with campus burglaries was factually incorrect. Since the article had been recently digitized and placed online, Vanginderen said that the University “re-published” the false information and he was thus entitled to sue for libel.
Vanginderen told The Sun last year that the University and its lawyers had tried to bully him into dropping his original libel suit and threatened to publicize the case if he continued to pursue the legal action.[img_assist|nid=34356|title=Timeline of the Chronicle Lawsuit|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
In the most recent case, Vanginderen had accused the University and its attorney, Bert Deixler of the Los Angeles law firm Proskauer Rose LLP, of improperly defending the University against the original lawsuit.
He alleged that they intentionally sought to destroy his reputation by placing confidential, private and privileged court and University documents into the court record so that they would appear publicly on the Internet, namely the legal website Justia.com.
The court ruled that because Cornell’s attorney filed the documents in question in court in order to defend the University, the University was protected from Vanginderen’s claims under California’s litigation privilege litigation law.
The judge also found no evidence that the University attempted to smear Vanginderen’s reputation on the Internet.
“[Vanginderen alleged] some sort of conspiracy among Google, Justia.com, and Cornell University,” Moskowitz wrote. “However, [his] conclusions regarding the relationship among these parties is based on pure speculation.”
This ruling represents a second victory for the University in its legal battle with Vanginderen. His original lawsuit was dismissed on similar grounds last June.
“We’re pleased that once again the court wrote an outstanding decision and reached the appropriate result with both the analysis of the facts and the application of governing legal principles,” Nelson Roth, deputy University counsel, stated in an e-mail.
Vanginderen, a practicing attorney in California, represented himself in both cases. He was unable to be reached for comment.
The dismissal of Vanginderen’s original case against the University last year received praise from University Librarian Anne Kenney because of the First Amendment implications involved.
“I feel that this is a real victory for the library in terms of being able to make documentary material accessible,“ Lenney said in a press release last year. “I do share concerns that individuals might have about potentially embarrassing material being made accessible via the Internet, but I don’t think you can go back and distort the public record.”
Vanginderen’s original lawsuit attracted attention from the Student Press Law Center, the American Library Association, the Citizen Media Law Project as well as several media outlets.
Vanginderen has appealed both decisions to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and both appeals are currently pending. Depending on the outcome of the two appeals, Vanginderen may have to pay for Cornell’s legal expenses associated with the cases under the anti-SLAPP law.