9:50am PT by Eriq Gardner
TMZ to Judge: Please Excuse Our Tardiness; We Just Learned About This Lawsuit!
TMZ Productions is looking for a late slip in a 10-month-old defamation lawsuit over its story about a prostitution ring bust on the heels of the 2014 Super Bowl. Despite the fact that the gossip site trumps supposed "exclusives" ad nauseam on the legal front, its lawyers on Friday told a New Jersey federal judge that it had only learned about the litigation two weeks ago.
Janice Lee and others are suing TMZ for defamation over an "Asian Invasion" story about a "high-end, coke-fueled prostitution ring ... comprised of a small army of Asian hookers ... who take credit cards."
The story came after New York's attorney general held a press conference in early 2014 announcing it had uncovered an illicit drug and prostitution ring. A press release announced 18 arrests, including of Lee. It took authorities nearly a week to release her from jail despite what a judge would later term "mountains of evidence demonstrating that Lee had no role in the illicit ring." By that time, news outlets had already portrayed her as being a prostitute, drug dealer and a member of an organized criminal gang.
U.S. District Judge William Martini would later dismiss defamation claims made by Lee against several news outlets including The Daily News, The Korea Times, Your Daily Media and All Things Crime because the stories were deemed to be covered by fair-report privilege as relying upon official statements by public officials. However, TMZ didn't respond to the lawsuit initially. And so, a court clerk entered default against the Harvey Levin news outlet.
Afterwards, the plaintiffs were themselves a little lax in prosecuting the case, and so the clerk issued a notice of call for dismissal as to the remaining defendants, including TMZ. The plaintiffs then responded so as to protect their surviving claims, and finally TMZ says it then "learned" of the action.
What explains TMZ's tardiness?
In a memorandum on Friday, TMZ points the finger at corporate parent Warner Bros. Entertainment and uses some form of lost-in-the-mail excuse. TMZ says it was indeed served a summons and complaint on February 12, but there was a "mistake in the processing."
According to TMZ's legal brief, "As Francine Rubensein, WBE's Director of Legal Services, explains, WBE has an established procedure for handling legal process served on any WBE entity, such as TMZP, but for unknown reasons the summons and complaint, which were apparently served in this action, were misdirected or lost. This has not happened before in Ms. Rubenstein's 27 years of processing such documents. As a result of this inadvertent oversight, TMZP knew nothing of this action until recently and therefore had not previously appeared in it."
Now that it has belatedly learned about the lawsuit, TMZ wants to set aside the entry of default and aims to score the same judicial treatment that the other news organizations got.
As a side note, now that TMZ Sports has just landed a new series on Fox Sports 1, there is perhaps something to be said about the gossip outlet's corporate structure. According to a declaration in this lawsuit by Jason Beckerman, head of legal affairs and business development for TMZ.com, TMZ Productions doesn't own or operate the website. Instead, TMZ.com is owned by another Warner Bros. affiliate, EHM Productions. Beckerman says that any legal process served on TMZ Productions gets forwarded to Rubenstein, who would forward to the attorney in charge of litigation at Warner Bros.