Former Levinson Axelrod associate Edward Heyburn -- who expected legal consequences for trashing the firm on the Web -- got them Thursday as the firm went to court in an effort to shut down his gripe site, "Levinson Axelrod Sucks."
The firm's lawyer, Thomas Cafferty, filed an order to show cause with temporary restraints in New Jersey's Middlesex County. But by the time the matter got before Superior Court Judge Frank Ciuffani that afternoon, Heyburn had removed the case to federal court in Trenton, N.J., and, as Ciuffani acknowledged from the bench, it was out of his hands.
Levinson Axelrod's complaint provided a federal question basis for removal by claiming violations of the federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act and the Lanham Act on trademarks. Two state law counts allege unfair competition and breach of the duty of loyalty by Heyburn, who worked at the Edison, N.J.-based personal injury firm from 1998 to 2004. And, though Heyburn's site names no clients, he is accused of disclosing confidential communications by providing enough case specifics to identify clients.
Those reading the gripe site "would not, if the material were believed, want to engage the firm or continue having the firm represent them in legal matters," the complaint alleges, noting Heyburn "goes so far as to criticize the physical appearance" of Levinson Axelrod attorneys, such as "the 1970's porno mustaches."
A certification filed by partner Ronald Grayzel says the firm fired Heyburn when it learned he was planning to leave and was asking clients to go with him. Heyburn's version on his site admits as much.
The firm's brief calls Heyburn "disgruntled" and his Web posts a "horrendous cyber-assault" meant to destroy [the firm's] business, with the bad faith intent to profit therefrom."
The firm did not sue for defamation, which Heyburn, now a Robbinsville, N.J., solo, calls a "concession that everything I said is true." He denies any breach of client confidences or commercial purpose and says he will move to dismiss.
On Friday, Heyburn faxed Cafferty a frivolous litigation letter, calling the case a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) and demanding that he withdraw it. He has posted the letter and the litigation papers on his site.
He also continues to add new material, including two "mock-u-mentaries," that are modified videos taken from the firm's own Web site.
Heyburn has changed his site's name, from "Levinson Axelrod Sucks" to "Levinson Axelrod Really Sucks," and has bought that domain name, so he has a place to move the site if a court kicks him off the current address, levinsonaxelrod.net. Levinson Axelrod recently bought both the .net and .com versions of LevinsonAxelrodsucks, he adds.
Traffic on the site has picked up, from 1,700 unique visitors in all of October to more than 11,000 in just the first six days of November, he says.
Cafferty, of Scarinci Hollenbeck in Lyndhurst, N.J., says he understood removal was a possibility but adds, "we do not believe it will matter what court we are before" and the firm will proceed with its request for a temporary injunction.