Lawsuits are occupational hazards for anti-cult blogger Rick Ross.
Sued a half-dozen times during the past decade for his public pronouncements, especially on the Internet, he’s managed to win all but one case, with the help of pro bono counsel. His latest close call came in December when Landmark Education, a promoter of self-help seminars, withdrew with prejudice its federal suit in Newark alleging defamation.
But Ross, of Jersey City, knows certain groups still have him in their sights. Posts on his Web pages — culteducation.com, cultnews.com and rickross.com — are replete with data about what he labels as cults or otherwise suspect entities, including Al Qaeda, the Ku Klux Klan, the Church of Scientology, Jews for Jesus and Amway.
"If I wasn’t getting sued by some of these groups, I’d wonder if my work was really having an effect," he says. "The fact that Landmark Education sued me was a testimony to the power of the Internet."
"These organizations don’t like critical dissent and that is clearly why people are pissed off at him," says Douglas Brooks, of Boston's Gilman & Pastor, who has represented Ross in litigation. "I think he’s always going to have to worry about suits."
Brooks represented Ross in a defamation suit filed in federal court in Maine in May 2004 by a group called The Gentle Wind Project, which distributes cards and trinkets that it claims will alleviate trauma and distress. The suit named Ross because one of his sites included a link to another site critical of the group, the latter of which was run by a husband and wife who were ex-members. Ross was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction in January 2005.
In 2003, Ross was named in two suits in the federal Northern District of New York filed by a group called NXIVM, which offers "executive success" seminars. In April 2004, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court ruling that NXIVM was not entitled to an injunction to remove information about it from Ross’ site, finding that his postings were covered by the Fair Use Doctrine. Brooks says copyright infringement and common law claims by NXIVM against Ross are in discovery.
In the recent New Jersey case, San Francisco-based Landmark Education had sued over postings on Ross’ sites that called it "cultish" and accused it of "brainwashing" participants.
Formed in 1991, Landmark bought the rights to Erhard Seminar Training (EST), a 1970s self-help program, from founder Werner Erhard and began offering 3-1/2 day seminars — called The Forum — that it says help participants improve their relationships and find happiness.
Anonymous accounts of The Forum on a message board at rickross.com describe the program as long hours of positive-thinking generalities coupled with high-pressure pitches for participants to take more courses and bring friends along.
Landmark’s suit claims the anonymous posts are written by Ross himself. It also objects to its inclusion in a database on cultnews.com that lists 250 cults and other controversial groups.
The 53-year-old Ross says he does not consider Landmark a cult because it lacks a central authority figure. Though the group treats Erhard with reverence, he lives in the Cayman Islands and does not [actively] participate, Ross says. [Werner Erhard's brother Harry now runs Landmark.]
But Ross considers the group harmful because, he says, subjects are intentionally intimidated and harassed over the course of 14-hour days and sometimes deprived of food and bathroom breaks. He says some participants have been hospitalized for nervous breakdowns after attending.
"The stress and strain of The Forum is potentially unsafe," he says. "They require people to sign documents waiving the right to a jury trial."
Landmark's attorney in the suit, Deborah Lans, of New York’s Cohen Lans, says participants are not denied food or bathroom breaks but that she has no knowledge of whether they are required to sign waivers or are prone to breakdowns.
Lans says Landmark sued Ross because he resisted its requests to post mitigating information on his site, a charge that Ross does not dispute. She says Landmark also obtained reports from an expert who analyzed the composition of the anonymous postings and concluded from the writing style that they were all written by Ross, a charge he denies.
After a year, Landmark moved to dismiss its case with prejudice, saying newly decided case law undermined its position.
Ross’ attorney, Peter Skolnik of Lowenstein Sandler in Roseland, wanted to go on litigating. He asked U.S. District Judge John Lifland to condition dismissal on allowing further discovery of Landmark’s training materials and on its history of litigation against critics.
Skolnik hoped the additional discovery would show that Landmark acted in bad faith because postings about it on Ross’ site were substantially true. He also sought to recover legal fees — which he estimates to be in the six figures — based on the assertion of bad faith.
Lans argued that Skolnik’s request for extended discovery was an attempt to litigate the merits of the case after the complaint was withdrawn. Skolnik admits that demonstrating bad faith necessarily touches on the underlying merits.
But on Dec. 28, Lifland pulled the plug on further discovery and the fee application, saying, "This is not a case where attorneys’ fees are authorized by statute. Moreover, there are neither exceptional circumstances nor a private agreement between the parties. Therefore, Defendants’ request for attorneys’ fees and for further discovery in this matter, as a condition of dismissal, is overly broad and without legal support." Landmark Education LLC v. The Rick A. Ross Institute of New Jersey, 04-3022.
Landmark dropped its suit in the wake of the Appellate Division ruling in Donato v. Moldow, 374 N.J. Super. 475 (2005), which held the operator of a Web site immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act of 1996 for anonymous postings that two local politicians claimed to be libelous.
Lans acknowledged that the Donato ruling had an impact only on that portion of her complaint dealing with Ross’ message boards but said that issue was "difficult to disentangle" from the rest of the case. "Landmark is an educational institution and as you might expect it picks its battles carefully," she says.
But in addition to the suit against Ross, Landmark has sued media outlets and critics four times in its 14-year history, according to a certification filed in the New Jersey case by the company’s general counsel, Arthur Schreiber.
Says Skolnik, "The primary objective here was to get a ruling that would make them think twice about such litigation in the future."
Schreiber, who could not be reached for comment, said in a statement on Dec. 21 that Landmark’s suit was not intended to stifle free speech. "We stand for people's self-expression," he said. "The lawsuit was about holding Mr. Ross accountable for having repeatedly made or published false statements on his Web site that damaged the reputations of Landmark Education and the people who choose to take our programs, solely for the purpose of his own financial gain."
Landmark claims Ross’ public criticism is intended to raise alarm about it and drum up more business. Ross makes a living as a deprogrammer of people who have joined cults, has served as an expert witness on cults and is frequently quoted in the news media worldwide.
Ross says his interest in cults began in 1982 when the Jewish nursing home where his grandmother resided was infiltrated by members of a [so-called "messianic Jewish"] sect seeking to convert residents to [fundamentalist] Christianity.