LOS ANGELES - Lawsuits come in all sizes and shapes: Some from indigent prisoners seeking their habeas corpus rights written on rolls of toilet paper or paper towels, to complicated screeds running hundreds of pages, written by some of the nation's most prestigious law firms.
And then there's Joseph R. Francis, et al v. John Doe 1, et al., authored by Robert E. Barnes, of LA-based Bernhoft Law, which describes itself as "one of the nation's leading boutique law firms," which "obtained felony acquittals for the actor Wesley Snipes" (who according to this could very well end up paying more to the IRS than he would have if he'd been filing his tax returns in the normal course, but whatthehell...)
"This story is a new version of an old classic - a story of southern justice gone awry," Barnes begins the "Summary" portion of Francis' suit. "Nina Simone sang about it; William Faulkner wrote about it; historians teach about it. A young man in his 30's imprisoned in a Florida jail cell in 2003, for what? Not giving millions of dollars to deceitful plaintiffs and dishonorable lawyers in a civil suit to satiate the avaricious appetite of a cavernous court, a court that rewarded the licentious acts of the wayward plaintiffs and their lawyers with illicit imprisonment and a coerced settlement under duress, perpetrating a continuous perversion of justice."
This opening reads more like a treatment for the eventual screenplay of Francis' travails than a recitation of the facts of the case. But if Barnes can prove what he claims actually happened to Francis, some attorneys and a federal judge in Panama City just might find that it's a "hot time in the old town tonight."
Basically, Francis is suing the parents of six young women who, he says, defrauded him into thinking that they were adults when he filmed them topless in a shower in a condo in Panama City during Spring Break 2003 for Francis' popular Girls Gone Wild video series.
But that was only a part of Francis' troubles which, to borrow the phrasing from Allan Arkin's character in Little Murders, involved "a far-reaching conspiracy to undermine our most basic beliefs and sacred institutions. Who is behind this conspiracy? Once again, ask the question, who has the most to gain? People in high places - their names would astound you! People in low places, concealing their activities beneath a cloak of poverty! People in all walks of life - leftwing and rightwing, black and white, students and scholars - a conspiracy of such ominous proportions that we will never, never know the whole story and we'll never be able to reveal all the facts!"
According to the complaint, Francis, a "young Californian" who had "branded and brandished an entrepreneurial enterprise that revolutionized media and marketing, unchaining the free expression of female sexuality without Victorian inhibition or imposition" (wait a sec; didn't Playboy do that, like in 1953?) "collided with the power structure of a small southern town, a religious conservative community riddled in its power structure with lawless law enforcement, a town hugging the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico, amassing hundreds of millions of dollars from college-age celebrators by welcoming raucous and unbridled celebration of youth during their annualized spring breaks from collegiate activities."
Translation: Panama City made big bucks catering to college kids on spring break, which brought in enough dough that the locals didn't pay too much attention to how the sheriff and deputies went about their duties.
"In duplicitous treachery only the dogmatic and rigid can embrace," the complaint continues, "the local powers that be publicly threatened to arrest and imprison the young Californian if he stepped foot in their town to simply observe and capture for the world the very spring break behavior that Panama City uses to stuff its pockets and placate the tax-concerned locals."
Translation: The cops threatened to bust Francis if he filmed the goings-on.
"Southern injustice," the complaint charges, "sadly symbolic for centuries as a land without law, where guns and gavels too easily replaced law and logic, where the rope and the tree too often substituted for the rule of law and the Bill of Rights, reared again."
This thing really cries out to be made into a graphic novel, doesn't it? Or perhaps a TV mini-series with Tom Cruise playing Francis and Don Johnson as the local sheriff?
Anyway, if the complaint doesn't get laughed out of court, what Francis is claiming is that the local cops harassed him from the moment he arrived - actually, he charges that they'd been planning the harassment for months before he arrived - then tailed him, watched his every move, and when the underage gals - sorry; the "seventeen year old women, a birthday away from the age of majority" - that posed for him afterwards told the police what had happened, the fuzz used that as an excuse to bust Francis for child porn and conspiracy.
Then, after what Francis claims were illegal searches of his condos and private plane, the "conspirators" seized "obviously inappropriate items such as a cell phone, a cable box, stereo speakers, printers, clothing, a U2 'Elevation' CD box set, commercially produced music CD's, power strips, batteries, scissors, a cable modem, a Playstation 2, an X-box, video games, a Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance application, cigars, GGW bus coin bank, a television set, a water bottle and even a tee shirt bearing the slogan 'Joe Francis for Mayor of Panama City Beach'" - and later, five and a half Vicodin tablets, which formed the basis of drug possession and sale charges.
Anyway, while it's unclear how they got involved - lack of clarity being a major flaw in any civil tort - the locals wound up employing "local connected lawyers" Harrison, Sale, McCloy, Duncan & Johnson - specifically Ross McCloy of that firm - to represent the city and its employees when Francis sued them for the allegedly illegal drug bust. Trouble was, one of that law firm's former partners was Richard Smoak, recently elevated to the position of Judge of the U.S. District Court - and the judge who wound up presiding over the underage girls' civil suit against Francis.
"In an incestuous nest of internecine conflicts, inherent and actual throughout," the complaint charges, "the women, the parents and their lawyers never made notice in the record of the judge's long-standing intimate professional and personal relationship, as his long-time ex-law partner and close personal friend, with the members of McCloy's firm and McCloy."
As a result of this "conflict," Francis claims that in an unprecedented move in a civil proceeding, Judge Smoak, on the pretext that Francis had failed to reach a settlement with the girls and their parents, jailed Francis for 11 months for contempt of the mediation process until, according to the complaint, Francis reached a monetary settlement with the girls and their families. Francis did eventually sign a multi-million dollar settlement, but charges in the lawsuit filed Tuesday that it was signed under duress and should therefore be vacated - and that both Smoak and McCloy should be sanctioned - and that Smoak should be impeached. Francis is also suing officials of Bay County, Florida, where Panama City is located, for $300 million for their "illegal conduct."
"I've learned the hard way that you can't take your free speech rights for granted," Francis stated in a video available on his website. "The biggest threat to our free speech is that people don't think they can make a difference."
If what Francis claims in his lawsuit is accurate, it appears that he's got a very good case. He can only hope that the judge who winds up presiding over the suit will manage to read all the way through the 26-page complaint without collapsing in a fit of laughter.