by Paul Alan Levy
Pursuant to the settlement in Smith v Garcia and Chief Judge Smith's ensuing order in that case, counsel for Richart Ruddie arranged to have a motion filed in the names of Bradley Smith and his debt relief company, Rescue One Financial LLC, asking a state court judge in Baltimore Maryland to vacate the “fake consent order” that she entered, enjoining the publication of several articles about Rescue One on the Get Out of Debt Guy web site operated by the Myvesta Foundation. The motion, however, soft-pedaled the fraudulent nature of the “consent order” that the judge was induced to enter. Given the fact that the Maryland Circuit Court for the City of Baltimore has been one of the main venues for securing fake consent orders — perhaps because Richart Ruddie grew up and maintains some of his corporate operations in Owings Mills, a Baltimore suburb – and because that court’s track record in responding to evidence of such judicial frauds has been disappointing, we agreed to represent Myvesta in filing an amicus brief urging the prompt issuance of an order vacating the consent judgment, but also recommending additional steps that the judge, and the court as a whole, might take to remedy the fraud already committed and to prevent the issuance of future prior restraints against protected online speech.
The fraudulent proceedings in Smith v. Levin, the case in which we filed today, are very much like Smith v, Garcia in federal court in Rhode Island with one exception – unlike the Rhode Island case, this was filed by an attorney, a young Baltimore lawyer named Bennett Wills (filing pro se was not an option because the debt relief company Rescue One was a plaintiff, and corporate entities cannot file pro se). As in Smith v Garcia, the judge was presented with a proposed consent order, supposedly signed by the defendant, admitting that certain comments on articles were false and defamatory, but using that admission as a basis for the issuance of injunctive relief directed at suppressing public access to the articles to which the comments were posted.
Shared Responsibility for the Judicial Fraud
We had several reasons for filing an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs’ motion to vacate. First, it seemed to us that the motion to vacate understated the extent of the fraud that had been perpetrated on the court — it did not frankly admit that Bryan Levin was an invented name created for the purpose of justifying the consent order, and it did not admit that the consent order sought the plaintiffs’ objective — suppression of critical articles — by the device of suing over allegedly defamatory comments. The motion did not admit that in additional to victimizing the court by the fraud, the person who arranged for the case to be filed was actually victimizing a speaker whose rights are protected by the First Amendment, and the motion did not call the consent order by its proper name — a prior restraint of protected speech. The fact that the order is prior restraint is an important reason why the order should be lifted immediately. And the motion downplayed the possible guilt of both the plaintiffs and their lawyer, Bennett Wills, by claiming that they were innocent of all knowledge of the fraud without producing any evidence of their innocence. Myvesta’s amicus brief addresses all those issues, and urges the court to consider whether, in addition to vacating the prior restraint, it should impose additional penalties on either the plaintiffs or their lawyer, Wills, and whether it should refer the matter to other authorities for consideration of further proceedings that might result in such penalties.
In that regard, I have said in a past blog post that I believe that Smith and Rescue One Financial were far more aware of the fraud being perpetrated on their behalf by Richart Ruddie than they have been willing to admit to date. I am less certain about how much Wills knew — whether he was just a “young and clueless” patsy, as one lawyer insists, or whether Wills was willingly taking money to file fraudulent papers with the Court. The fact that he filed two other phony consent orders, with signatures by supposed defendants whose handwriting appears to be identical, casts in question the claims for his innocence, as does the claim of one of Bradley Smith’s lawyers that Wills filed the case without ever getting Smith’s signature on a retainer agreement. Also suggestive of guilt, to my mind, is the fact that Wills hired counsel to threaten litigation, and to seek monetary sanctions, against Public Citizen and me personally for pursuing discovery about whether, and to what extent, he was keeping Smith and Rescue One Financial apprised of what he was doing, and securing their authorization for his wrongful acts on their behalf.
Maryland Circuit Courts Have Been a Venue of Choice for Fake Consent Orders
A second reason for submitting the amicus brief was to ensure that the judge not hear this motion to vacate judgment in isolation – we know of a raft of other cases like Smith v. Levin that were filed in the Maryland courts and, in particular, in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Some of these other cases also sought relief suppressing other articles on the Get Out of Debt Guy blog, in the apparent interest of other debt relief companies that the blog had criticized. Our brief identifies several other such cases, and Professor Volokh’s research has identified several more. In fact, in two other situations, after efforts to obtain apparently fake consent orders ran aground in other courts (one a federal court in Texas, one a state court in Maryland) because somebody noticed a flaw in the proceeding, the fraudster simply re-filed the case in a Maryland circuit court where the staff and the judges were less careful– and obtained the fake consent orders that they wanted. It appears the Maryland state courts are a focus for judicial frauds undermining free speech across the nation; this weak link in First Amendment protection for robust speech needs to be fixed.
There may be many cases in the Maryland courts mainly because Ruddie is from the area; if so, putting Ruddie out of business, and perhaps in prison without Internet access, could provide a major part of the solution to the problem. We had hoped that the United States Attorney’s investigation of Ruddie would lead to the undoing of all the fake orders he has obtained across the country, but so far that has not happened. Although Ruddie has moved promptly to remedy the fake orders specified in his settlement with Myvesta, it had been our understanding that Ruddie’s plea discussions with the United States Attorney’s office required him to take action to undo all of the fraudulent orders he obtained. So far, however, he has undertaken no motions to undo the fake orders obtained in these other Maryland cases. Whether this means that there is a fraudster other that Ruddie operating in the Maryland courts, or whether Ruddie has decided not to move promptly do undo other frauds that he perpetrated, we do not know. Ruddie’s counsel has refused to answer questions about his involvement in additional cases. But prompt action by the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, or by enforcement authorities whose involvement it might encourage, could get things moving in these other cases.
Refusal to Undo the Fraud Perpetrated in Patel v. Chan
A final reason why an amicus brief was needed is that, to date, it appears that at least one judge on the Maryland Circuit Court for Baltimore City does not care about the fact that a phony consent order proceeding hoodwinked him into ordering truthful speech suppressed. In Patel v. Chan, the very first case in which Ruddie's involvement in phony consent litigation was discovered, Matthew Chan moved pro se to lift the consent order entered to try to suppress his reviews. That motion was filed on September 1, 2016, and as of the time last month when I began work on our amicus brief, Judge Philip Senan Jackson, who had been hoodwinked into signing the phony consent order, had not yet ruled on the motion — a patently invalid prior restraint was left sitting on the books for nearly eight months after the judge who issued it was informed that there was no basis for his order.
Unlike Chief Judge Smith in Rhode Island, who readily admitted his embarrassment at having fallen for the trick but then promptly took remedial action, Judge Jackson was not responding at all. I understood that Chan had made a few efforts to prod the court into action, but was getting nowhere. This struck me as the height of irresponsibility on Judge Jackson’s part; I was determined not to let that happen to Myvesta.
Late last week, that situation took a turn for the worse: a one-page order from Judge Jackson denied the motion to vacate on the ground that the affidavit supporting Chan’s motion was not attested in the manner required by the Maryland rules. This ruling is inexplicable – the affidavit was sworn before a notary (see the last page here). I contacted several Maryland lawyers who practice in state court and asked them about this attestation; each told me told me that, as far as they could tell, this was a proper verification of the affidavit. And even if the judge found some defect in the order, there were plenty of exhibits attached to the motion, not to speak of a separate filing by an attorney for Mitul Patel, agreeing that the complaint filed in his name had been submitted to the court without his authorization, and bore a forged signature. Several Maryland lawyers to whom I provided the affidavit shared my reaction – what could Judge Jackson possibly be thinking? Here is a judge who has been defrauded and he appears not to care! His unwillingness to retract his injunction against Matthew Chan’s speech is worrisome, because such judicial inaction simply encourages fraudsters who want to suppress speech that they don’t like to resort to this particular state court in the future.