A reader comment on a Las Vegas Review-Journal story detailing a romantic relationship between a judge and a former prosecutor has prompted a defamation lawsuit.
Former Chief Deputy District Attorney Mary Brown and her husband, defense attorney and former prosecutor Phil Brown, are suing an anonymous commenter who posted online that Mary Brown "had sexual relations in order to get promoted," according to the lawsuit.
The Browns say the comment is false and has harmed their reputations.
The identity of the commenter — who posted under the pseudonym "Lawyer" — has not been disclosed.
An attorney for the anonymous commenter, former justice of the peace Tony Abbatangelo, is hoping to keep it that way.
Citing U.S. Supreme Court doctrine that says anonymous speech is protected by the First Amendment, Abbatangelo is hoping to quash a subpoena served on the Review-Journal for information about the anonymous commenter, including the person’s email address.
The person was notified of the subpoena by the Review-Journal. The newspaper has not responded legally to the subpoena and is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, the accusation appeared five times under four news stories that detailed accusations of an inappropriate relationship between Family Court Judge Steven Jones and former prosecutor Lisa Willardson.
Mary Brown, who headed the juvenile division of the district attorney’s office until she resigned April 2, was one of Willardson’s supervisors. Willardson was fired Dec. 13.
The comments are no longer posted on the stories on the Review-Journal’s website. The actual statements have not been listed in court documents.
When contacted Monday, Abbatangelo said he personally respected both Mary and Phil Brown as attorneys.
He also described blog comments this way: "Half of it’s nonsense, and the other half is more nonsense."
However, he said, his client’s comments are protected free speech.
He added that he didn’t believe the comments hurt Mary Brown’s reputation or cost the Browns their positions or clients.
The Browns are "going to have to prove what damage was done," the former judge said.
Phil Brown contended Monday, "You can’t slander somebody and hide behind the First Amendment. If you do that, there are going to be consequences."
According to the lawsuit, the anonymous statements subjected the Browns "to ridicule and obloquy, and cause(d) them to be shunned in their community and in the larger business and legal community in which they operate."
The statements also have caused the Browns "extreme emotional distress."
The lawsuit does not seek a specific amount of money.
Abbatangelo’s motion to quash suggests that the anonymous writer was aware that Phil Brown was a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office and was engaged to Mary Brown before she was hired.
"Because the poster ‘Lawyer’ was provided with this information, she or he was not negligent in believing … Mary Brown used her relationship with her now husband to advance from a clerk into a lucrative position as a deputy," according to Abbatangelo’s motion.
However, the Browns’ lawsuit asserts that the commenter said Mary Brown "had sexual relations in order to get promoted," not hired.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit said, the motion to quash suggests that the anonymous commenter is "admittedly a very unpopular member of the legal community."
Mary Brown isn’t the only public official the commenter has hounded in the comments section of the Review-Journal. "Lawyer" also has taken shots at judges and "expressed disdain towards police and other public officials."
The commenter also fears he or she will lose his or her license to practice law.
According to the motion to quash, "Disclosure of his or her identity would effectively ruin ‘Lawyer’s’ career. He or she would be reported to the bar, likely suspended, and not able to practice."
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at fmccabe@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.