The Complaint for Defamation
Plaintiff Michel Thomas, a New York resident, files this Complaint against the above-named defendants and, demanding trial by jury, complains and alleges as follows:
Jurisdiction and Venue
Plaintiff is a citizen of the State of New York. Plaintiff is informed and believes that Defendant Roy Rivenburg (hereinafter "Rivenburg") is a citizen of the County of Los Angeles, State of California. Defendant Los Angeles Times Communications, L.L.C. (hereinafter, "LA Times") is a limited liability company formed under the laws of the State of Delaware and having its principal place of business in the County of Los Angeles, State of California. Defendant Tribune Company (hereinafter "Tribune") is a corporation formed under the laws of the State of Delaware and having its principal place of business in the State of Illinois. The amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.00 exclusive of interest and costs. This court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ß 1332(a).
Defendant LA Times transacts business, maintains offices and may be found within the Central District of California. Plaintiff is informed and believes that Defendant LA Times is a wholly owned subsidiary of Defendant Tribune. Plaintiff is informed and believes that Defendant Roy Rivenburg resides in the Central District of California. Venue is appropriate in this district pursuant to 28 U.S.C. ß 1391.
Nature of the Action
This is a civil action for defamation pursuant to California Civil Code ß 45. Plaintiff MICHEL THOMAS (hereinafter "THOMAS") is an 87 year-old resident of the State of New York. On April 15, 2001, Defendants LA Times, Tribune Corp. and Rivenburg published false and defamatory statements and implications, which are set forth below, about THOMAS, which stated and implied that THOMAS has falsely represented events from his past. As a direct and proximate result of the actions of Defendants LA Times, Tribune Corp. and Rivenburg, THOMAS has suffered and continues to suffer economic damages, reputational harm, and emotional distress.
ALLEGATIONS OF FACT
THOMAS is a concentration camp survivor, a member of the French Resistance, a WWII veteran and an Agent of the United States Army Counter Intelligence Corps. During his service in the United States Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) in WWII:
THOMAS was present at the liberation of Dachau where, in accordance with his duties as an Agent in CIC, he interrogated members of the crematorium staff;
THOMAS personally obtained a letter of confession from Emil Mahl (the "Hangman of Dachau");
THOMAS was the first official of the Allied forces to discover the existence of a vast number of Nazi documents in a paper mill in Freimann, near Munich, in May 1945. These documents included the Nazi Party master card file of approximately 7 million Nazi party members worldwide. The find was considered to be among the most significant of captured German war records, and later formed the heart of the archives at the Berlin Document Center.
THOMAS' persistence and vigilance as an Agent of CIC led to his capture of SS Major Knittel, a priority war criminal who was implicated in the massacre of American POW's (prisoners of war) in the Malmedy-Stavelot area in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.
During THOMAS' service with the French Resistance, THOMAS was interrogated by and escaped from the infamous Klaus Barbie, a Nazi Gestapo officer.
At present, THOMAS owns and operates Michel Thomas Language Centers, language training schools engaged in the business of teaching foreign languages and English as a second language, in New York City and in Beverly Hills, California. He has been engaged in the business of teaching languages and educational methods in the United States and abroad for approximately 54 years.
Defendant LA Times publishes and distributes the Los Angeles Times, a newspaper of general circulation throughout Los Angeles County, and indeed, worldwide. The Los Angeles Times, including the Sunday edition, is also distributed nationally, internationally and by means of the Internet. Plaintiff is informed and believes that Defendant Tribune is the parent company of Defendant LA Times and as such, manages, owns and operates Defendant LA Times. Defendant Roy Rivenburg (hereinafter "Rivenburg") is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, who wrote the Article at issue in this matter.
Plaintiff is informed and believes that, at all times herein mentioned, Defendants were the agents and/or employees of each of their co-defendants, and in doing the things alleged herein, were acting within the purpose, course and scope of that agency, and that each Defendant has ratified and approved the acts of his or its agents.
On or about April 15, 2001, Defendants, and each of them, wrote and published an article concerning THOMAS entitled "Larger Than Life" on the front page (Page E1) of the Southern California Living Section of the Sunday Los Angeles Times (the "Article"). (A true and correct copy of the Article is attached hereto as Exhibit "A" and incorporated herein by this reference.) The Article was, and is, published by Defendants on the Los Angeles Times' website and was therefore available to and read by a worldwide audience. The clear design of the Article was to adversely affect THOMAS' reputation and credibility by falsely and wrongly portraying him as a fraud and a liar who has fabricated and misrepresented his past experiences, achievements and accomplishments and who has misrepresented his capability and effectiveness in his present business of teaching foreign languages and/or English as a second or foreign language.
Specifically, the Article wrongly published and communicated the following non-privileged false and defamatory implications:
That THOMAS was not a member of and did not serve with the United States Counter Intelligence Corps ("CIC") during WWII;
That THOMAS was not present at the liberation of Dachau;
That THOMAS was not interrogated by and did not escape from Klaus Barbie during World War II, and that his testimony to that effect during Barbie's war crimes trial must therefore have been fabricated;
That THOMAS did not discover and secure a vast amount of Nazi government documents and Nazi Party membership cards;
That THOMAS has lied about, fabricated, and exaggerated events of his past;
That THOMAS' language teaching method is a sham and that the classes he offers are not worth the fee charged.
First Cause of Action
(Defamation Against All Defendants)
Plaintiff THOMAS repeats and realleges paragraphs 1 through 10 and incorporates said paragraphs as though fully set forth herein.
The Article's overall false and defamatory implications set forth above were created by the Article as a whole and in particular by the inclusion of numerous linguistic devices and slanted words and phrases in virtually every paragraph of the Article to discredit THOMAS and to portray him as a fraud and a liar, an exaggerator, and a figure of ridicule. Through use of these devices and through their juxtaposition with selective quotes from sources portrayed as authority figures, Defendants have intentionally created the implication that THOMAS has lied about the above-listed events and his military service. Specifically, the Article utilizes the following statements and linguistic devices to discredit THOMAS and his experiences, in order to persuade readers that THOMAS is not to be believed:
Suggestion that THOMAS is a teller of tall tales, as in the phrases, ". . . as he recounts various exploits, " ". . . Thomas readily admits his stories are hard to believe." "But it wasn't the language system that grabbed writer Christopher Robbins' attention. It was the wild tales." "Many of his claims are hard to prove - or disprove." and, "Indeed, his biography is laced with vivid recollections, . . . playing boule slot machines in the foyer of Monte Carlo's casino in 1941, where he pocketed a tidy sum over four months by 'pulling the lever with exactly the same pressure every time.' (Casino officials, after consulting their archives and various experts, say the type of slot machine Thomas describes 'to our knowledge was never in Monte Carlo.')"
In truth, a document in the archives of the Monte Carlo casino speaks of a "boule" slot machine in use there in 1939-1941.
Use of loaded or slanted words and phrases in such statements as the Article's title, "Larger Than Life," and in the opening sentence, beginning, "If everything he says is true. . .";
Personal ridicule in such statements as, "Dressed in a navy blue suit and sporting a silver pompadour of unknown origin . . .";
Irony in such phrases as, "He was the sole survivor of not one but three concentration camps in World War II . . ." and "who wasn't";
Stylistic clash, as in "Oh, and his New York and Beverly Hills language schools can teach anyone a foreign tongue in just three days," and "Then there's the trial of Klaus Barbie . . .";
Suggestion of personal dishonesty as in "'He was where he said he was, when he said he was,' says Robbins, who is splitting royalties from the biography with THOMAS . . ."and, "Although vague on details, . . .";
Editorial tongue-in-cheek commentary, as in ". . . Easier said than done."
Use of fabricated and/or out of context quotations such as, "THOMAS' Dachau account relies on a memory system he says he devised as a child that enables him to relive past events in his mind." This statement is an ugly distortion of two disparate and widely separated matters discussed in Robbins' biography of THOMAS, juxtaposed in the Article to falsely imply that THOMAS' "memory" is false. In fact, early in "Test of Courage" the author describes how THOMAS made sure not to forget his childhood. Later, in Robbins' description of THOMAS' account of his Dachau experiences, there is no mention of any "memory system".
"THOMAS says he tagged along with the battalion from 157th infantry regiment on a historic mission." THOMAS never stated he "tagged along" with any battalion, as his status as a CIC officer allowed him to travel unconnected to any combat unit.
"He [Thomas] also says 'Other Holocaust victims could have escaped death too if only they hadn't given up hope and surrendered to their fate.'" THOMAS never made this statement. It is an invention of Rivenburg's, apparently created for the sole purpose of ridiculing and discrediting THOMAS, deliberately putting words in his mouth to misstate his absolutely contrary stance on this moral and ethical issue, and falsely implying that THOMAS has an attitude of arrogance and contempt towards the victims of the Holocaust who did not manage to survive as he did.
"His own family, he believes, died at Auschwitz." In fact, THOMAS' statement to Rivenburg was, "My entire family was slaughtered at Auschwitz," thus indicating not merely belief, which suggests doubt; but the certain knowledge that they were murdered. Former Auschwitz prisoners whom THOMAS interviewed at various concentration camps immediately after liberation told him they had been with his parents and other relatives in Auschwitz. In fact, one of the reasons he went to Dachau and other concentration camps, in addition to his professional reasons for doing so, was to look for his family, or some information from former Auschwitz prisoners that might reveal their fate.
The Article's overall false and defamatory implications were also created by Defendants' intentional exclusion of numerous facts, including the fact that Defendants interviewed witnesses, including Theodore Kraus, a CIC colleague of THOMAS' who was with him for at least 15 months during this time, and who participated in many of Thomas' CIC actions. In their desire to create and reinforce the false and defamatory implications set forth above, Defendants ignored and willfully blinded themselves to Kraus' confirmation of THOMAS' CIC actions, and refused even to share with their readers Kraus' verification of THOMAS' CIC service.
In addition to Defendants' exclusion of the facts relating to the interview with Kraus, Defendants excluded facts from the Article regarding documents provided or made available to them. THOMAS provided copies of, or otherwise made available, copious additional documentation and other evidence of his wartime experiences to Defendants, including original handwritten documents, photos, negatives, and numerous letters written by his military superiors testifying to his outstanding service. These documents, photos, and other records provide substantial and persuasive evidence concerning THOMAS' experiences and his service as an Agent with the CIC, his role as an intelligence agent at the liberation of Dachau, and his discovery of Nazi documents at a paper mill near Munich. Defendants willfully chose to ignore this abundant and powerful evidence. Defendants also excluded from the Article the fact that these documents were presented to them, or made known to them, prior to publication.
Instead, Defendants went to great lengths to find persons who had no personal knowledge of THOMAS' actions as a CIC agent , who were thus not in a position to comment on THOMAS' veracity, and who in some cases had only peripheral information or doubtful expertise. These persons were then quoted in the Article in such a way as to put THOMAS in the worst possible light, and to imply that he had lied about or exaggerated his wartime experiences. The Article's implications listed above, which would and did lead reasonable readers to believe that THOMAS had lied about his experiences and war record during World War II, were and are false and defamatory.
In truth, THOMAS was a member of the CIC. Prior to publication, THOMAS provided and/or offered to provide documents to Defendant Rivenburg, including, but not limited to the following:
A Recommendation For Decoration recommending THOMAS for the Silver Star, one of the military's highest medals for valor, written to the commanding officer of the 45th Infantry Division, describing at great length THOMAS' extraordinary courage and effectiveness in combat during the battle of the Vosges mountains in Alsace.
A letter written October 2, 1946 by Theodore C. Kraus, Special Agent of the CIC, on CIC stationery, stating that Kraus has worked with THOMAS since September 1945, and praising THOMAS for his "extraordinary initiative", his "well-organized informant network", and his "ardent devotion to the job".
A letter dated July 20, 1945, signed by Captain Rupert W. Guenthner, stating that THOMAS joined his unit, the 45th CIC Detachment, on March 28, 1945. The letter states, "the devotion of Kroskof-Thomas to the assigned mission of this unit far exceeded the demands placed on other personnel." [Emphasis in original.]
A letter dated November 5, 1945 signed by Ernest T. Gearheart, Jr., Special Agent in Charge. This letter states the writer has known THOMAS "since approximately March 1945, when we were both serving in the 45th Infantry Division CIC Detachment, under the command of Rupert W. Guenthner." Once again, the letter offers the highest praise for THOMAS, citing his "high calibre" work, his "intelligence, initiative, superior devotion to duty, and an admirable comprehension of counterintelligence techniques." This document is also on CIC stationery, of the Ulm Subsection, Team 970/35.
A letter dated February 27, 1946, signed by Elmer A. Becker, Special Agent CIC, again offering high praise for THOMAS' "extraordinary interrogation abilities" and his language skills in English, French, German, Polish, Dutch, Italian, and Russian. This document is also on CIC stationery, of the European Theater Headquarters in Stuttgart.
A "Report of the French Forces of the Interior" dated December 4, 1944, titled "On the Services and Activities of Michel Kroskof-Thomas in the Resistance and Maquis". Captain Dax, Territorial Commandant of Sector 6, signed this letter, which describes THOMAS' heroic and extraordinary work as an officer of the French Secret Army ("ArmÈe SecrËte") of the French Resistance. The letter also describes THOMAS' arrest at the end of January 1943 by the Gestapo in Lyon, his torture "for six hours" by the French Gestapo (Milice), and his detachment on August 29, 1944 to the "American 7th Army (Intelligence) Ö for the Front."
A Deuxieme Bureau (French Military Intelligence) First Alpine Division letter, dated November 10, 1944, stating that THOMAS was a liaison officer with the American Army.
An Ordre de Mission from the French Army Counter-Intelligence, dated August 24, 1945, which refers to Michel THOMAS as being with the American Army CIC.
Numerous additional CIC documents, including THOMAS' CIC identification card (which appears on the cover of the book "Test of Courage"), CIC permits to drive civilian cars, and orders to carry out missions.
Congressional Register documentation of the bills introduced by Members of Congress Clyde Doyle and Helen Gahagan Douglas in the late 1940s, recommending THOMAS for expedited U.S. citizenship by Special Act of Congress, based on his outstanding service in the U.S. Army.
Rivenburg willfully ignored this mountain of detailed evidence, writing instead that "the Pentagon was unable to verify [Thomas's] military service."
In truth, THOMAS was present during the liberation of Dachau. Numerous documents and photographs taken by THOMAS support his recollection of this event. THOMAS was present at Dachau as an intelligence officer (Special Agent) with CIC attached to the 45th Division of the 7th Army, (nicknamed the Thunderbirds) on a divisional, not a regimental level. His presence in this capacity would not necessarily have been known to an infantry commander such as the former Lt. Col. Sparks cited in the Article. THOMAS' role was not combat, he was there as an intelligence officer. In fact, he was one of very few Army personnel on the scene who could speak several of the many languages spoken by the camp's guards and inmates.
At Dachau, THOMAS interrogated the members of the crematorium staff. THOMAS still has in his possession, and presented to Defendants, ten original typed statements by five of the crematorium's workers, as well as the original handwritten statement of Emil Mahl, the so-called Hangman of Dachau, and various other documents and photographs, including negatives, in THOMAS' possession.
Mahl was convicted of war crimes by an Allied Court at Dachau in November, 1945. He was sentenced to death, but his sentence was subsequently commuted to ten years. THOMAS also has in possession, and offered to make available to Defendants, a copy of a letter Mahl wrote to THOMAS in 1949, from Landsberg prison in Germany, concerning his arrest by THOMAS.
Consistent with the pattern of willfully ignoring original documents and other source materials presented by THOMAS, Defendants chose to ignore this compelling evidence of THOMAS' role at Dachau, and instead went on an extensive research expedition to find "experts" who would cast doubt upon his veracity, in order to willfully and intentionally imply that he could not have been there when he said he was.
In truth, THOMAS was interrogated by, and escaped from, Klaus Barbie. His statements regarding this event are supported by a French Resistance document written on December 4, 1944 by Jean Berfini, a well-known Resistance leader who operated during World War II under the nom de guerre "Commandant Dax," which document has been certified as genuine by the Secretary General of the Department Committee of National Liberation. Moreover, Rivenburg's purported quotes from Serge Klarsfeld and Pierre Truche were not the result of any conversations those individuals had with Rivenburg, but were taken from Christopher Robbins' biography of THOMAS and from a documentary film about the event and THOMAS' testimony. The actual quote by Truche, which comes from the poet Boileau, is "Le vrai peut quelquefois n'etre pas vraisemblable," "Truth can sometimes not be likely." This is what Truche said to THOMAS personally, describing how he felt throughout THOMAS' testimony at the Barbie trial.
In truth, THOMAS was the first member of the Allied forces to discover an enormous cache of documents at a paper mill in the village of Freimann, outside Munich, in early May of 1945. The documents were brought there by the Gestapo to be shredded and pulped. The documents included the Master Card file of the Nazi Party, which consisted of over 20 million cards, organized alphabetically and by Gau (district), of the seven to ten million members of the Nazi Party worldwide. This card file and other documents found at the paper mill became the heart of the Berlin Document Center, which was kept under military guard and run by the U.S. State Department until 1994, when the collections were turned over to the Germans. The documents THOMAS found at the paper mill also included files from high-level Nazi courts.
Additional information about these documents was provided to Rivenburg by THOMAS, who told Rivenburg that he discovered the documents in early May 1945. In fact, THOMAS put the paper mill off limits and surrounded it with guards. He then brought the existence of the documents to the attention of the officer in charge of U.S. Military Government Public Safety, U.S. Seventh Army, in Munich. THOMAS insisted that it was now up to Public Safety of the Military Government to take over the security and disposition of the documents in the paper mill. Official U.S. Army reports from the period confirm that THOMAS' unit, the CIC of the 45th Division, Seventh Army, discovered the documents at the paper mill in May 1945 and not in October 1945 as stated by Rivenburg in the Article.
Additionally, Rivenburg ignored an account in his own newspaper that offered a time line consistent with THOMAS' account of his discovery of the documents. The article, published in the Los Angeles Times on March 11, 1979, under the byline of Harry Trimborn, states that the owner of the paper mill preserved the Nazi files "until they were discovered April 30, 1945 by an American GI."
Defendants' also ignored documentary evidence of THOMAS' CIC activities as described in the 30-volume history of the CIC, which was readily available to sources whom Defendants' interviewed and quoted in the Article. Volume XX, page 2862 of the CIC history describes the capture of the German-occupied town of Hersbruck by "Agents Thomas and White" in April 1945. This passage refers to CIC Agents Michel Thomas and Frederick J. White of the 45th Division of CIC.
Defendants' assault on THOMAS' credibility, reputation and character results from their intentional decision to ignore facts and information readily available to them before publication. Moreover, such assault ignores the credibility and reputation that THOMAS has earned from numerous sources. For example, THOMAS has been invited to address, and has addressed, numerous organizations including the Anti-Defamation League, the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, and various organizations in Israel; he has been interviewed by Ted Koppel on ABC's "Nightline" as a witness in the Klaus Barbie trial; and he has been quoted on more than one occasion by New York Times columnist Flora Lewis as a concentration camp survivor and former CIC agent. In fact, Defendant LA Times has previously recognized THOMAS' experiences and accomplishments in its published profile of THOMAS in a lengthy 1983 article. Notably, that article acknowledged that THOMAS was a CIC Agent and a survivor of the Holocaust.
Despite THOMAS' extensive history which has been documented in reputable publications and broadcasts, despite the availability of a thoroughly-researched biography, despite the statements of a living witness who served with THOMAS in the CIC, and despite the abundant and compelling original documents and photos that THOMAS provided, Defendants intentionally and willfully ignored THOMAS' extraordinarily well-documented past. Instead, Defendants' published the Article, stating and implying that THOMAS has fabricated or lied about his past for personal gain (or for any other reason). Defendants' statements and implications are personally and professionally devastating to THOMAS, are experienced by THOMAS as character assassination, and subject him to hatred, ridicule, shame, embarrassment and obloquy. Such statements and implications have caused, and will cause, THOMAS to be shunned and avoided by numerous important organizations and individuals. As such, the Article's statements and implications are defamatory on their face.
At the time Defendants published the Article, Defendants, and each of them, knew that the Article contained the implications listed above and that such implications were false, or acted in conscious and reckless disregard of the falsity of the Article and the implications derived therefrom. Notwithstanding Defendants' knowledge that THOMAS' statements about his wartime experiences were truthful, Defendants nevertheless published the Article and its implications that THOMAS lied about these events in order to sensationalize their story about him, to embarrass and humiliate him, and to cause irreparable damage to his reputation and his credibility.
As further evidence of Defendants' malicious intent and desire to do harm to THOMAS, Defendants composed and published a phony "Letter to the Editor" on May 7, 2001, following the Article's publication. This supposed "letter," which supported the Defendants' position that the Article was allegedly "fair and balanced," was signed "C.R. 'Mac' McCormick, Sierra Vista, Ariz.," and was allegedly sent by Conrad McCormick, a former agent in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps. In fact, Mr. McCormick never sent a "Letter to the Editor" to Defendants or to the Los Angeles Times, as stated by LA Times. Instead, the "letter" appears to have been drafted by Defendants, in part from some of the text found in e-mails that Mr. McCormick exchanged with Defendant Rivenburg during Rivenburg's investigation for the Article.
On May 2, 2001, THOMAS, by and through his attorneys, hand delivered a letter to John P. Puerner, Publisher of Defendant LA Times and John S. Carroll, Editor of Defendant LA Times, demanding that Defendant LA Times retract, correct and apologize for the false statements and implications made in the Article. A true and correct copy of THOMAS' retraction demand is attached hereto as Exhibit "B" and incorporated by this reference as if fully set forth herein.
As further evidence of Defendants' wrongful conduct, on May 31, 2001, Karlene W. Goller, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of Defendant LA Times responded to THOMAS' retraction demand, and refused to correct or retract any of the false statements or implications set forth above or to apologize to Plaintiff.
As a direct and proximate result of the Article and its implications, THOMAS has been and continues to be embarrassed, humiliated, and devastated by the false statements and implications and he has been, and continues to be, shunned, avoided and subjected to ridicule resulting in significant damage to his reputation. In addition, THOMAS' business has been damaged and he reasonably fears that he will continue to lose business in the future as a result of the Article and its false and defamatory statements and implications. These damages are in an amount which cannot be presently ascertained but which THOMAS believes exceeds the sum of $10,000,000.00, subject to proof at trial.
Defendants have acted willfully, maliciously and with the intent to injure THOMAS as set forth above. As such, THOMAS is entitled to recover punitive and exemplary damages in an amount sufficient to punish Defendants, and each of them, and to deter them from such conduct in the future.
WHEREFORE, THOMAS prays for damages against Defendants, and each of them, as follows:
For general damages according to proof at trial, but in an amount of not less than $10,000,000.00.
For special damages arising from loss of business and business opportunities, including but not limited to a loss of current and prospective students at THOMAS' language schools, loss of speaking engagements and public appearances, loss of sales for Thomas' language instruction tapes, and loss of revenues and royalties from the sale of Christopher Robbins' biography of THOMAS, all according to proof at trial;
For presumed damages for loss of reputation and emotional distress;
For an award of punitive damages in a sum of at least $10,000,000.00, or in an amount sufficient to punish Defendants and deter future similar conduct;
For all costs of suit herein; and
For such other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper.