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Published: Tuesday, 10/27/2009

Lawyer in Blade suit seeks bankruptcy

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

One of the area attorneys who unsuccessfully sued The Blade in 1990 alleging libel and invasion of privacy has filed for bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Toledo in an apparent attempt to skirt attorney fees owed to the newspaper.

George C. Rogers of Napoleon, Ohio, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Oct. 9, the day before he was scheduled to file an additional briefing in Lucas County Common Pleas Court concerning the money owed to The Blade.

Listed among his creditors on the bankruptcy filing are the Internal Revenue Service, a credit card, and medical bills.

The largest debt listed is to The Blade in the amount of $200,000.

When reached in his Napoleon office, Mr. Rogers said he had no comment about his decision to file bankruptcy.

Mr. Rogers and fellow attorney James Godbey sued The Blade on behalf of 10 Toledo police officers and two civilians who claimed they were wronged by the newspaper's 1990 investigative series “The Secret Files of Internal Affairs.”

The series, which ran for eight days in June, 1990, detailed reports of police misconduct.

The lawsuit was dismissed July 8, 1997, by Judge William Skow, now deceased, who was on the Common Pleas Court bench at the time. In a 163-page decision, Judge Skow ruled that The Blade legally obtained and used public records for its series and that the information was reported accurately.

He also attacked Mr. Godbey and Mr. Rogers, citing “the lazy, shabby, inexcusably negligent and untrustworthy nature of the research and briefing done by plaintiffs' counsel in this case.”

As part of that case, Judge Skow ruled that the attorneys violated court rules during the discovery portion of the lawsuit and ordered the two men to pay $18,981 in sanctions.

According to court records, those sanctions were noted as paid in full as of July, 2000.

Judge Skow's dismissal of the lawsuit was upheld by the 6th District Court of Appeals.

The Ohio Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court both declined to hear the case in 1999.

Soon after the initial lawsuit was dismissed in 1997, The Blade filed a motion for attorney fees and sanctions. The motion was put on hold throughout the appellate process and in January, 2009, an order granting The Blade's request was issued.

Judge Stacy Cook, who assumed Judge Skow's docket, ruled that the newspaper was entitled to attorney fees associated with its defense during the appeals.

Saying that “the matter bled into the realm of frivolity” during the appellate process, Judge Cook ordered The Blade to submit an itemized fee statement to the court.

The judge did not grant the newspaper's request for fees associated with the original lawsuit, saying that different standards exist.

She also noted that while Judge Skow criticized the plaintiffs' lawyers “as to the mishandling of the action” in his 1997 decision, he did not “turn a cause of action into frivolous conduct.”

Since the order, The Blade's attorneys submitted statements totaling $163,301. A decision on the total amount owed the newspaper has not been determined.

Estimate of debts

Yesterday, Mr. Rogers said that he chose to list $200,000 as the amount owed to The Blade because “you just have to put down some estimate of potential debts.” He declined further comment.

Attorney Brian Hizer, who filed the bankruptcy on Mr. Rogers' behalf, said that generally Chapter 7 bankruptcies are filed by an individual who “doesn't have the assets to pay off their debts.”

He declined to speak specifically about Mr. Rogers' case, citing attorney-client privilege, but said that bankruptcy is used “if you have large sums owed and you don't have the money.”

John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade, said Mr. Rogers should not be allowed to use bankruptcy court to shield himself from the money he owes the newspaper.

“It was clear from the start that the lawsuit against The Blade was meritless, and it was equally clear that the lawyers brought the suit not because it was valid, but because of the deep personal animus they held against The Blade,” Mr. Block said. “The courts first disposed of the suit and then ruled that Mr. Rogers acted unlawfully in maintaining it. This development is merely a part of his reckoning for his bad behavior.”

Toledo attorney Elliot Feit, who specializes in bankruptcy law, said yesterday that Mr. Rogers may not be able to absolve himself from the money owed the newspaper, citing specific examples of types of claims that can't be discharged in bankruptcy.

Those include court-ordered child support, most tax obligations, and court judgments that were brought on by “willful, wanton, or malicious” actions of the debtor, Mr. Feit said.

‘Willful and malicious'

Before that is decided, Mr. Feit said, Judge Cook has to decide how much in legal fees Mr. Rogers owes The Blade, and she must decide that Mr. Rogers' actions against The Blade were “willful and malicious.”

Mr. Hizer, Mr. Rogers' lawyer, said a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is designed to liquidate debts of the filer. By filing Chapter 7, all debts approved to be liquidated could never again be filed against the debtor.

Mr. Block said if the bankruptcy court discharges the debt Mr. Rogers owes The Blade, the Ohio Supreme Court's Clients' Security Fund — funded by Ohio lawyers to reimburse victims of dishonest lawyers — should repay The Blade the legal fees it expended to defend itself against “the malicious and unjustifiable” lawsuit that Mr. Rogers and Mr. Godbey filed.

“We should be made whole by the legal profession for a case that was filed in bad faith just as the victims of embezzlement by lawyers are,” Mr. Block said.

Attorney J.P. Smith, a former police officer and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against The Blade, said yesterday that he was not privy to the documents filed in the case since the close of the appeals a decade ago.

Noting that he was not an attorney at the time and currently does not practice that type of litigation, Mr. Smith said he doesn't know what effect, if any, the decision to award attorney fees would have on future lawsuits being filed against the newspaper.

“For any case that gets filed by any attorney, there has to be a good-faith basis in it,” he said. “If that's the case, then there will be no effect.”

From Judge Skow's 1997 decision dismissing the lawsuit Mr. Rogers and Mr. Godbey filed against The Blade, it's clear Mr. Skow felt the lawyers' lawsuit was not well-brought.

‘Insulting' to court

“The organization of legal arguments into distinct paragraphs is virtually non-existent, little attention is paid to sentence structure, and there is little, if any, continuity of thought or argument,” Judge Skow wrote in his decision. “The sloppy practices are moderately insulting to the Court, to opposing counsel, and to prospective readers … there are instances of serious misrepresentations … which must be presumed to have been deliberate.

“These examples are serious, even egregious. They are seamy and sordid, and exceed what could be condemned as excusable neglect.”

Judge Skow then contrasted the abilities of Mr. Rogers and Mr. Godbey with the skills of The Blade's counsel — Toledo lawyer Fritz Byers and Washington lawyer Jonathan Hart.

“This court has never encountered a case in which the differences in expository skills were as stark and divergent as this one. The submissions of plaintiff's counsel were remarkably sloppy and disorganized; in some instances, they were virtually unreadable. Defendant's filings, on the other hand, were extremely well-written and researched, and always germane and trenchant.”

Not listed as a defendant in The Blade's action to recover attorney fees is Mr. Godbey, whose license was suspended indefinitely by the Ohio Supreme Court on March 6, 2002.

The suspension, which was unrelated to the lawsuit against The Blade, is the harshest penalty short of disbarment and followed a recommendation to the court from the Toledo Bar Association's grievance committee.

The court determined Mr. Godbey violated 21 codes of professional conduct for lawyers.

He was accused by the Toledo Bar of neglecting clients, not informing them of key developments in their cases, failing to return telephone calls, and failing to turn over files.

Contact Erica Blake at:eblake@theblade.com,or 419-213-2134.



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