7:21am PT by Eriq Gardner
If Fox News Has a Social Media Sock Puppeteer, Does He Gain Benefit of Arbitration?
Pete Snyder, the politically connected technology investor accused of running social media "sock puppet" accounts on behalf of the late Roger Ailes, is demanding that claims by former Fox News host Andrea Tantaros be dismissed or arbitrated. On Tuesday, Snyder and Disruptor, Inc., made a motion in New York federal court in an ongoing lawsuit.
Tantaros alleges she was "tortured" by her former employer, Fox News. She asserts her digital devices were hacked and that she received suspiciously personal messages on Twitter, which she says caused her to fret about her own safety. The lawsuit came in April, two months after Tantaros' earlier sexual harassment complaint against Fox News was ruled to be covered by an arbitration clause in her employment agreement.
Fox News is seeking sanctions against Tantaros and characterizing her allegations of wiretapping and social media harassment to be an "outright hoax." The cable news network has put forward declarations in an attempt to show that some of the messages Tantaros received on Twitter came not from any "sock puppet" account, but from a real person unconnected with Fox News.
Snyder, who founded New Media Strategies and lost a bid to become Virginia's lieutenant governor in 2013, has now filed his own salvo.
His court papers begin by accusing Tantaros and her attorney Judd Burstein of an attempt to "exploit the legal system as a PR weapon," although Snyder's own attorney, Randy Mastro at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, might not be above conveying messages in legal briefs intended for ears other than the judge's.
In response to claims his clients participated in cyberstalking, Mastro writes, "Put simply, that is a lie," and boldfaces this before acknowledging that judges don't tackle questions of truth at this juncture of the dispute. He adds, "Neither Mr. Snyder nor Disruptor has ever performed the kind of social media smear work that Ms. Tantaros alleges, nor have they performed any social media or communications consulting services for Fox News since 2012."
The bulk of Snyder's motion (read here) is devoted to the argument that Tantaros hasn't stated specific facts to support her claims that he electronically surveilled her or intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon her.
If the judge sees enough to allow Tantaros to explore Snyder's alleged involvement, Mastro brings the alternative — and perhaps more legally provocative — argument that the dispute over cyberstalking should proceed in arbitration.
Fox News and other co-defendants (Bill Shine and Irena Briganti, though not Ailes, who after passing away was dismissed from the case) naturally demand arbitration, too, but here, Snyder maintains he doesn't work for Fox News. Nevertheless, he asserts the network's arbitration agreement with Tantaros covers claims against him as well.
"The Complaint seeks to hold [Snyder and Disruptor] liable for the purported retaliatory social media scheme undertaken on Fox News’s behalf, meaning as its alleged agents," states Snyder's motion. "But Ms. Tantaros cannot have her cake and eat it, too: if the [Snyder and Disruptor] are purportedly agents of Fox News, they are entitled to 'the benefit of arbitration agreements entered into by their principals' that the Second Circuit has 'consistently afforded agents' where 'a suit alleges misconduct that relates to behavior' of the agents in their capacities as such."
In other words, although Snyder calls the allegation of being Fox News' sock puppet master a "lie," he wants the judge to treat it as true in at least one respect. Even if the proposition is accepted, a judge would likely have to analyze whether claims over social media harassment are sufficiently intertwined with an employment agreement and really do extend to Fox News' contractors.