August 16, 2012We were wrong when we wrote the first line of a story on the front page of The Rhino Times on July 26: "The fat lady has finally sung." It's under the headline "Rhino Lawsuit Over At Last," and that isn't true either.
It turns out the defamation lawsuit filed against The Rhino Times and Jerry Bledsoe by Greensboro Police Capt. Brian James and now retired Police Officer Julius Fulmore in November 2007 is not over, and the fat lady may not even be in the building; as to singing, who knows.
It's not over because James and Fulmore, through their attorney Amiel Rossabi, are refusing to pay The Rhino Times the court costs that North Carolina Superior Court Judge Edgar B. Gregory ordered them to pay when he granted summary judgment in favor of The Rhino Times and Bledsoe on April 5, 2011.
Gregory ordered James and Fulmore to pay costs to the defendants but did not detail what those costs were. Seth Cohen of Smith James Rowlett & Cohen who is representing The Rhino Times said, "The law is clear. The costs include mediation fees and depositions, which comes to $3,861, and that is all The Rhino is asking for."
The costs are a tiny portion of the legal expenses incurred by The Rhino in defending itself in this case.
The Rhino Times has been well represented by Cohen, and every single time we have been in court we have won. Every decision by a judge in this case has been in our favor, including the last time when James and Fulmore appealed the summary judgment decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
The three judge panel unanimously upheld the summary judgment ruling and had some no-nonsense words about the lawsuit.
In particular, the opinion had strong words concerning the one instance in which I was being sued for a passage in an editorial column I had written, except, as the court noted, I hadn't written the words for which I was being sued. In fact, the passage had never appeared in The Rhino Times until we wrote about and quoted the lawsuit. The defendants inserted their names into a passage about "police officers who hang out with drug dealers and prostitutes" and then sued The Rhino for that altered statement. The Court of Appeals decision states, "Plaintiffs claim that the reference to 'police officers' in the statement implicates them, but this is incorrect."
Most of the statements for which we were being sued were from the Cops in Black & White series by Bledsoe. One of those statements was that James was a "prime suspect in a major federal drug case." The Court of Appeals opinion states, "Sanders confirmed in his deposition that James was a prime suspect in the investigation regarding police officers passing information to [Nicole] Pettiford."
The opinion also states, "James was very disturbed that he was referred to as a 'prime suspect,' rather than a 'person of interest.' While James's personal definitions of these two terms indicate the phrase 'person of interest' may have been more appropriate, this statement was not made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity. Furthermore, James admitted in his deposition that he knew his behavior looked suspicious, and he thought an investigation was warranted, but he just did not like the manner in which the investigation was conducted."
The opinion also notes that these statements about James for which The Rhino was sued "were substantially true."
It doesn't make much sense to base a libel case on arguments about semantics or statements that are true, but it now appears one purpose of the suit may not have been to win in court.
When James and Fulmore did not request that the North Carolina Supreme Court review the unanimous Court of Appeals decision, we thought the case was finally over. There is no right of appeal for a unanimous Court of Appeals decision, so James and Fulmore would have had to petition the North Carolina Supreme Court to hear the case, and local attorneys said it was extremely unlikely that the NC Supreme Court would have heard it.
Since there were no more avenues of appeal we assumed the case was over. It didn't occur to us that a Greensboro police captain – Brian James – and a retired police officer – Julius Fulmore – would refuse to pay court costs, but that is exactly what James and Fulmore are doing.
When the court granted the request for summary judgment it meant that in the opinion of the court, taking the evidence in the most favorable light for James and Fulmore, there was no way a reasonable jury could find in their favor. In layman's terms the court determined that James and Fulmore didn't have a case.
So with no case, why are we back in court? It appears this is about forcing The Rhino Times to spend as much money as possible defending itself against a lawsuit that the courts repeatedly determined had no merit.
We are scheduled to go back to court on Sept. 6, when Cohen will argue that the defendants should pay the court costs of $3,861, and we will have to pay Cohen to make that argument.
But, at this point, it would not be at all surprising for James and Fulmore to request a continuance and drag the case out for a few more months. As long as the case hasn't been heard they don't have to pay the costs and The Rhino has to pay more legal fees.
The fat lady may never sing.