HT to Marti
Thursday, August 10, 2006
By KIBRET MARKOS
A state appeals court Wednesday declined to sanction an Englewood abortion clinic that was accused of filing a frivolous lawsuit against an antiabortion group.
Metropolitan Medical Associates -- known for dramatic protests it attracted in the 1990s -- sued the Legal Center for Defense of Life two years ago, saying the group organized pickets who intimidated patients and blocked public access to the clinic.
The clinic also sued the city for not enforcing ordinances against obstructive sidewalk activities, and sought a protest-free buffer zone around the Engle Street facility.
A state Superior Court judge in Hackensack dismissed the lawsuit, saying the claim should have been made in federal court, where the clinic was tangled for years in litigation with protesters represented by the Morristown-based center.
The center, a law firm of volunteer lawyers representing clients in abortion, euthanasia and other right-to-life cases, then filed a complaint alleging that the clinic's lawsuit was frivolous and filed in bad faith, costing the center nearly $20,000 in legal fees.
Now-retired Superior Court Judge Gerald C. Escala dismissed the center's claim, but an appellate panel reversed the decision, saying the judge did not articulate the reasons for the dismissal. Escala then issued a procedural explanation, which the center challenged on a second appeal.
The three-judge appellate panel ruled Wednesday that the judge applied proper procedural rules in dismissing the center's claim. Steering clear of any precedent-setting, the four-page opinion did not address the issue of whether the clinic's lawsuit was frivolous.
"It seems the judges are going out of their way to avoid saying that," said Richard Collier, president of the center. "They are coming up with all sorts of reasons to avoid a hot issue."
Collier called the clinic's lawsuit clearly frivolous.
"Instead of suing the picketers, they sued their attorneys," he said. "That's like suing the attorney for an insurance company after you get in a car accident."
That's not even a close comparison, said Lawrence Kleiner, the attorney for the clinic.
Despite the center's denial, there is evidence that the firm went beyond representing demonstrators in court, he said. "The organization instructed picketers how to picket more effectively," he said.
The battle between the clinic and the center dates back to the mid-1990s, when the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office charged several demonstrators, some of whom entered the clinic and chained themselves. The charges were dismissed after a Superior Court judge in Hackensack struck down a 1974 consent order that required protesters to remain across the street from the clinic.
The protesters, who were represented by the legal center, were then allowed to picket outside the clinic as long as they didn't block the entrance.
The two clashed again when the federal government sued 29 antiabortion protestors in 1997, seeking a 60-foot buffer zone around the clinic. Again represented by the legal center, the demonstrators invoked their right to free speech.
A federal judge did not approve the buffer zone but prohibited protesters from blocking access to the clinic.