(Reuters) - If you want to know just how ugly litigation can get, check out the Manhattan federal court docket in Tantaros v. Fox News.
Former Fox News host Andrea Tantaros filed the case two months ago, packing her complaint with boldfaced allegations that the network and Fox executives had orchestrating a social media campaign to frighten her away from pursuing sexual harassment claims. According to Tantaros’ lawyer, Judd Burstein, Fox figured out a way to spy on Tantaros’ phone and computer conversations, then used Twitter “sock puppets” to seed social media with menacing hints about its surveillance.
Fox’s lawyers at Dechert almost immediately filed a motion for Rule 11 sanctions against Tantaros and Burstein. Fox said their spying accusations were “not just false (but) outrageously and flagrantly so.” If Burstein had conducted even minimal investigation, Fox’s sanctions motion said, he would have discovered that the Twitter “sock puppet” account at the heart of Tantaros’ allegations of social media threats is operated by a real person whose tweets reflect no malicious designs toward the ex-Fox host. (Fox also said Burstein should be sanctioned for suing in federal court when Tantaros’ sexual harassment claims have been transferred to confidential arbitration.)
On Wednesday, Fox News contributor Pete Snyder, a Virginia social media marketing executive who is also a defendant in Tantaros’ suit, filed his own motion for sanctions against Tantaros and Burstein. The motion, by bulldog litigator Randy Mastro of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, makes many of the same points as the filing by Fox.
But Mastro also adds some provocative details about his and his client’s interactions with Tantaros lawyer Burstein, asserting that Burstein nakedly attempted to “shake down” Snyder for $15 million in exchange for leaving him out of the suit against Fox.
In a statement issued in response to the new sanctions motion, Burstein did not deny Mastro’s allegations but claimed the new sanctions brief presents only a “truncated version” of discussions between Burstein and Mastro, leaving out key mentions of whether Fox contributor Snyder is willing to take a polygraph test.
Let’s start with Mastro’s account of how Snyder was supposedly dragged into Tantaros’ case. According to the sanctions brief, Snyder has been a friend and even mentor to Tantaros, allegedly helping her first get a job at Fox and then advising her after she was hired. Snyder’s own relationship with the network, he said, goes back to 1998, when he began appearing as an unpaid guest. After an unsuccessful run for office in Virginia, he was hired as an on-air contributor. Snyder’s company also did social media and consulting work for Fox, but he maintains that gig lasted less than a year and ended in 2012. Snyder said his contract as a Fox contributor ended in April 2017.
On April 10, according to the Snyder sanctions motion, Tantaros lawyer Burstein sent Snyder an email alleging that he and his company helped Fox perpetrate a social media campaign to discredit and intimidate Tantaros. The email supposedly threatened that Tantaros would sue Snyder unless he paid her millions of dollars.
Burstein also, according to the sanctions motion, “threw into his email irrelevant personal smears—falsely accusing Mr. Snyder of having a ‘widely-known drinking problem’ and of ‘hitting on’ Ms. Tantaros as ‘his pregnant wife slept’ in the same home—for no apparent reason other than to try to coerce a huge, multimillion dollar settlement out of Mr. Snyder to avoid the adverse publicity.” (Snyder counsel Mastro said those personal accusations are “completely fabricated.”)
Snyder hired Mastro, who said in the sanctions motion that he called Burstein a week after his client received the threatening email. Mastro supposedly told Burstein that Snyder hadn’t advised Fox on social media matters in years.
Burstein followed up, according to the sanctions motion, with an email demanding that Snyder pay Tantaros $15 million within 24 hours or be prepared to face an embarrassing lawsuit. “Burstein’s shakedown was so brazen that it was tantamount to extortion,” the sanctions brief said.
After Burstein filed the suit naming Snyder and his company, Gibson Dunn informed him by letter that it intended to seek Rule 11 sanctions against him and Tantaros if they refused to drop Snyder and his company from the complaint. (Fox sent its own warning letter.) According to the sanctions motion, Burstein said he would dismiss claims against Snyder if an independent investigator selected by both sides agreed after examining the evidence that Snyder hadn’t done social media work for Fox and hadn’t slurred Tantaros.
“Mr. Snyder was so confident that all of Ms. Tantaros’s allegations were completely false that he would have submitted to such an invasive investigation so that the truth would come out,” the sanctions motions said.
But within 24 hours, according to the motion, Burstein said Snyder would have to agree to a sweeping investigation granting Tantaros “complete access to all of Snyder’s business and banking records,” but would not permit Snyder’s lawyers to investigate whether Tantaros and Burstein raised allegations against Snyder in good faith. “After an extended back-and-forth, Mr. Burstein finally pulled the plug,” the sanctions motion said.
Burstein’s statement responding to the Gibson Dunn accusations raises questions about why Fox paid Snyder $180,000 a year – a salary he said Mastro confirmed to him – for a mere ten hours of on-air appearances. “Plainly, Mr. Snyder is being paid $180,000 for something more,” Burstein said. “Why did Mr. Snyder’s counsel present such a truncated version of our discussions to date, thereby leaving out any mention of facts such as (a) my offer to allow Mr. Snyder to clear himself with a polygraph test, (b) Mr. Snyder’s counsel’s demand that we use an investigator that he alone chose, and (c) his counsel’s demand that there be no inquiry into what Mr. Snyder does for the $180,000 a year he receives from Fox News?”
Burstein said the sanctions motion is “yet another attempt to improperly intimidate me into abandoning my pursuit of justice for Andrea Tantaros,” and that he regards it “as a badge of honor. I am not going to back down because I have truth on my side.”
As I mentioned above, what the Burstein statement doesn’t say is that he never promised Snyder and Mastro not to sue in exchange for $15 million.
Litigation spectators don’t often get to see the down-and-dirty details of negotiations like the ones that supposedly took place between Mastro and Burstein. That’s probably for the best. We all like to think justice is blind. This case makes clear that it isn’t always pretty.