Summary Judgment Denied in Bochetto Defamation Case

A Philadelphia judge has denied a defense motion for summary judgment in a defamation action that prompted a landmark media rights decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2004.

In his most recent opinion in Bochetto v. Gibson, Judge Albert W. Sheppard Jr. ruled that it will be up to a jury to decide whether or not George Bochetto of Bochetto & Lentz was defamed by the attorney who represented a former client of Bochetto’s in a legal malpractice case against Bochetto.

At the heart of the case are statements made in a complaint filed in a legal malpractice action against Bochetto. Certain statements in the complaint were reported in an October 1999 article in the suburban edition of The Legal Intelligencer.

Attorney Kevin Gibson, at the time a member of the firm Kassab Archbold & O’Brien, filed the legal malpractice suit against Bochetto in Chester County on behalf of the Pickering Hunt Club, a nonprofit fox hunting organization. That action stemmed from Bochetto’s representation of Pickering Hunt in a quiet title action. (Bochetto prevailed in that underlying malpractice suit.)

After the complaint against Bochetto was filed, Gibson faxed a copy to a reporter from The Legal, sparking the instant defamation case.

In March 2002, Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Albert W. Sheppard Jr. granted both Gibson’s and Bochetto’s cross-motions for summary judgment on each other’s defamation claims in the case. Sheppard further ruled that Gibson’s actions in faxing The Legal a copy of his complaint fell within the scope of judicial privilege.

In March 2003, the majority of a three-judge Superior Court panel affirmed Sheppard’s decision on the basis of his “well-reasoned trial court opinion.”

But in the fall of 2004, a divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in favor of Bochetto.

The 4-2 Bochetto court concluded that because faxing the document to a reporter was an “extrajudicial act that occurred outside of the regular course of the judicial proceedings and was not relevant in any way to those proceedings, it is plain that it was not protected by judicial privilege.”

Sheppard’s ruling against the defense last week means the case is one step closer to going to trial.

“We’re very pleased that Judge Sheppard has cleared the way for a trial, and we’re looking forward to going to trial,” Bochetto said in a recent interview.

Defense attorney Robert Tintner of Fox Rothschild said he plans to raise at trial the issues argued during the summary judgment battle.

“The judge believes that a qualified privilege applied, but that the question of whether that privilege was abused is a question for the jury,” Tintner said.

Among Sheppard’s findings in his recent decision was that Bochetto, though a former Pennsylvania Boxing Commissioner and past Philadelphia mayoral candidate, is not a public figure for the purposes of his defamation action.

Bochetto said he doesn’t feel slighted by Sheppard’s conclusion on that point.

“In a libel case, being deemed a public figure is practically a knockout blow,” he said.

–Asher Hawkins, Staff Reporter 

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