It isn't often these days that the subject of an unfavorable news story takes on the mighty NYT in court.
But the owners of Gorilla Coffee, a popular Park Slope beanery, have boldly slapped the paper and its coffee correspondent with a libel lawsuit, over a blog post that reported last April on allegations of barista mistreatment by its owners.
The suit, filed in New York State Supreme Court and read by The NYTPicker, alleges that the NYT published the Diner's Journal blog post "with actual knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity or with negligence."
The suit names the NYT Company as a defendant, along with Oliver Strand -- the NYT Dining section contributor formerly known as Oliver Schwaner-Albright, who wrote the offending post -- and several former employees of Gorilla Coffee.
The owners of Gorilla Coffee -- Darleen Scherer and Carol McLaughlin -- claim in the suit that they have "suffered shame, emotional distress and embarrassment and were exposed to contempt and ridicule" because of the post.
Here's what happened.
Last April, on the second day of a worker walkout at Gorilla Coffee, Strand weighed in with a blog post reporting in detail on the dispute. In it he repeated charges by Gorilla baristas of a “perpetually malicious, hostile, and demeaning work environment," and their demand for the removal of McLaughlin as co-owner.
In the post, Strand gave the co-owners a chance to defend themselves against the accusations. The two women described Gorilla Coffee to the reporter as a "mostly happy" place, but co-owner Scherer acknowledged that her colleague was "like a drill sergeant" in her training of baristas.
But it was the NYT's publication of the entire email message -- apparently sent to the NYT from seven Gorilla Coffee employees -- that inflamed the co-owners and has prompted the lawsuit against its signers, the reporter and the newspaper.
The employee email described the work environment of Gorilla Coffee as "not only unhealthy, but also, as our actions have clearly shown, unworkable."
The lawsuit alleges that the email was written with "express and implied malice and with design and intent to injure GORlLLA in its good name and reputation."
After the workers quit and the NYT published their allegations, Gorilla Coffee was forced to close for two weeks as the co-owners hired a new staff.
Ironically, most of the NYT's coverage of the dispute -- with the notable exception of Strand's post -- has focused on management's point of view, and seemed favorably disposed towards Scherer and McLaughlin.
Metro reporter Diane Cardwell filed two City Room posts on the re-opening of Gorilla Coffee, and followed up with a metro feature on April 27 that made no apparent effort to interview any of the former employees. Instead, Cardwell quoted the co-owners defending themselves, and local residents who seemed more or less happy to find their favorite coffee joint open again.
“Faults and all,” one resident told Cardwell, “this is a neighborhood institution.”
News of the Gorilla Coffee lawsuit was first reported yesterday afternoon on the Fucked in Park Slope blog. McLaughlin and Scherer have yet to respond to emails seeking comment on the suit. We've also contacted the NYT for comment.
Despite all the Gorilla Coffee press coverage, part of the lawsuit's basis is that neither Scherer or McLaughlin are public figures. The suit states that "plaintiffs are not public figures and are not involved in any public controversy in connection with their wholesale or retail coffee business," adding that "defendants' defamatory statements do not involve a matter of public concern."
Their status as public figures is relevant to the lawsuit, in large part because of a precedent-setting libel case against the NYT by an Alabama law-enforcement official named L.B. Sullivan. That 1960s case, in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the NYT, established that in a libel suits brought by a public figure, a plaintiff had to prove malicious intent.
The last libel suit against the NYT was filed in 2008 by Vicki Iseman, a Washington lobbyist whose friendship with Sen. John McCain became the focus of a story alleging a conflict of interest. The NYT settled that suit last year without paying Iseman any damages, or retracting the story.