Updated, March 21 | In the criminal justice system of television’s “Law & Order,” the plots are inspired by two separate, yet equally important, groups: the television writers who craft the intricate if sometimes convoluted episodes, and the real-life characters who inspire those writers. This is one of their stories.
Ravi Batra, a Manhattan lawyer, filed a lawsuit in 2004 against Dick Wolf, the creator of the television series, arguing that the plot of a November 2003 episode included an unsavory character, Ravi Patel, who is modeled on Mr. Batra. In a decision made public on Wednesday, Justice Marilyn Shafer of State Supreme Court in Manhattan rejected a motion by Mr. Wolf’s lawyers to dismiss the lawsuit.
Mr. Batra, who was born in India and is active in Brooklyn politics, entered the public spotlight following the April 2003 arrest of Gerald P. Garson, a justice in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn who was charged with granting a divorce lawyer, Paul Siminovsky, preferential treatment in exchange for vacations, dinners and gifts. It later emerged that Justice Garson had agreed to wear a wire to gather evidence that a seat on the bench could be purchased with bribes to Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., who was the Brooklyn Democratic leader. Mr. Norman was subsequently convicted of other charges: extortion, soliciting illegal contributions from a lobbyist and stealing $5,000 from his re-election committee. Mr. Garson was convicted on charges of accepting bribes and official misconduct. Both men went to prison.
Mr. Batra was not charged with anything, but his political connections were widely reported at the time: Mr. Norman was of counsel to Mr. Batra’s firm, and Mr. Batra served on the Brooklyn Democratic judicial screening committee.
In the “Law & Order” episode, a body found floating in the Hudson River leads to the uncovering of a judicial corruption scandal. A female judge in Brooklyn is shown socializing with a bald Indian-American lawyer, Ravi Patel, from whom she accepts cash bribes.
Mr. Batra filed his lawsuit under a doctrine known as libel-in-fiction. To win his case, he must demonstrate that the identities of the real and fictional characters “must be so complete that the defamatory material” becomes a “plausible aspect” of the plaintiff’s real life, Justice Shafer wrote in her ruling, quoting case law.
Mr. Wolf’s lawyers argued that the similarities between Mr. Batra and the Patel character were “abstract,” but Mr. Batra argued that “because of the uniqueness of his name, ethnicity and appearance,” any viewer watching the episode and familiar with the news would identify the character with Mr. Batra.
Mr. Batra demonstrated that at the time the episode aired, he was one of only six lawyers in New York City with the given name Ravi and the only one of the six with the same age and physical description as the Patel character.
Mr. Wolf’s lawyers noted differences between the real and fictional characters. Unlike the Patel character, Mr. Batra is based in Manhattan, never appeared before the corrupt judge and has not been implicated in any wrongdoing.
The judge was unsympathetic.
“None of these facts would be known to a viewer, aware of Batra only through the media coverage” of the Garson scandal, Justice Shafer wrote, adding that there was “a reasonable likelihood that the ordinary viewer, unacquainted with Batra personally, could understand Patel’s corruption to be the truth about Batra.”
The ruling allows the case to move forward to discovery. Mr. Batra, in a phone interview, said he felt vindicated. “This is a landmark case, because the impartiality and independence of the judiciary is critical to society, and ‘Law & Order,’ a reality show, recklessly undermined public confidence in the rule of law and the noble judiciary.”
Pam Golum, a spokeswoman for Wolf Films, Mr. Wolf’s production company, said she could not comment on a pending lawsuit. [Two days later, on March 21, Ms. Golum provided the following statement from Mr. Wolf: “We do not comment on litigation, but contrary to Mr. Batra’s remarks to the press, ‘Law & Order’ is not a reality show. It is, has been, and always
will be fiction.”]
Curt King, a spokesman for NBC Universal, the television network, which is also named as a defendant in the suit, said in an e-mail message: “No character in the ‘Law & Order’ episode at issue depicts Ravi Batra. We are confident that when the evidence is considered (which it is not on a motion to dismiss), it will demonstrate that NBC did not defame Mr. Batra.”