PHILADELPHIA Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery and his wife, Lise Rapaport, sued The Inquirer on Wednesday, accusing the newspaper of maliciously tarnishing their reputations in a series of stories on fees Rapaport received for referring clients to personal-injury law firms.
In a defamation suit filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, the attorney for the couple criticized the paper's reporting for what he described as its "calculated and premeditated incompleteness and intentionally malicious slant."
"This case is all about media accountability for publishing smear pieces," lawyer Dion G. Rassias wrote.
Inquirer editor William K. Marimow, who is also named as a defendant, described the stories Wednesday as "accurate, thorough, and fair."
"They examined an issue of public importance in the administration of justice in the state of Pennsylvania, and that's what a good news organization ought to be doing," he said.
In his court filings Wednesday, Rassias cited three articles written between March and August 2013 by Inquirer investigative reporter Craig R. McCoy, also named as a defendant.
The first, published March 4, highlighted 18 referral fees collected during the last decade by Rapaport, a University of Pennsylvania law graduate who had served as her husband's chief legal aide for much of the last 16 years.
Stories published June 11 and Aug. 18 reported that the FBI had launched an investigation into McCaffery and that a federal grand jury had subpoenaed records from several law firms that had paid fees to Rapaport.
The payments included $821,000 she received in 2012 for referring a multimillion-dollar medical-malpractice case to a Philadelphia law firm.
McCaffery's suit notes the paper ran a short item on March 24 under the heading "Amplification," reporting that Rapaport was on leave at the time that particular referral was made in 2007. McCaffery at the time was a judge in Superior Court.
Referral fees, which are legal in Pennsylvania, are paid to compensate a lawyer for bringing a client to a firm if the litigation is successful. McCaffery listed the income on his financial-disclosure forms, as required by state law.
The Inquirer reported that firms with which Rapaport had a financial relationship appeared before the Supreme Court 11 times on unrelated cases. McCaffery, the paper reported, did not disclose those ties in court.
The high court's chief justice, Ronald D. Castille, quoted in the stories along with other legal experts, said he saw the financial relationships as a potential conflict of interest. After the articles' publication, the court adopted rules prohibiting judges from hiring relatives or sitting on corporate boards.
In Wednesday's suit, Rassias said that the payments were routine and proper and that McCaffery and Rapaport were innocent of any unethical or illegal conduct - statements that echoed Rassias' stance as described in the original stories.
He said that by publishing the articles, Marimow sought to advance the agendas of friends and business contacts "whose interests and motivations were completely adverse to . . . McCaffery."
The complaint cited testimony from a November court battle between Inquirer co-owners Lewis Katz and George E. Norcross III, in which the newspaper's publisher, Robert J. Hall, questioned the front-page placement of the original story and called it "seriously flawed because it implied that Justice McCaffery and his wife, Lise Rapaport, had done something wrong."
At the time, Katz was seeking court action to have Hall removed from his post and reinstate Marimow, who had been fired Oct. 7. Both men remain in their posts.
Rassias declined to comment on Wednesday's suit or the allegations made in it against Marimow.
The editor, in an interview, said: "The only agenda in this story was to scrutinize an issue of public importance - the ideal governance of the Pennsylvania court administration."
In addition to The Inquirer, the suit names as defendants the Philadelphia Daily News, Philly.com, and the parent company of all three, Interstate General Media.
Daily News editor Michael Days and editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson were also sued for their involvement with a June 16 cartoon featuring McCaffery and Rapaport.
The complaint also names Intertrust GCN, a limited partnership set up by IGM minority stakeholder Katz.
General American Holdings, the limited-partnership firm held by Norcross, IGM's majority stakeholder, was not specifically targeted in the suit - a decision Intertrust lawyer Richard A. Sprague has questioned in court filings.
This month, Sprague also filed a motion seeking the recusal of all of Philadelphia's Common Pleas Court judges from McCaffery's case, citing the justices' extensive personal and professional ties to the local bench.
No ruling has been made on Sprague's request.