By Justin T. Kelton
As an attorney who represents publishers, reporters, and media companies, I have been following the conflict between the stalwart WestView News and its breakaway competitor, the “New WestView News” (now known as the “Village View”). I do not represent any of the parties involved, but I have had the pleasure of befriending George Capsis, the legendary publisher of the WestView News. Based on the information available, Mr. Capsis and his newspaper have been treated terribly by those they trusted, including Mr. Capsis’ ex-lawyer, who tried to wrest control of the paper before leaving to form a competitor using a similar name, design, and focus.
Mr. Capsis, who is 95 years old, founded the WestView News more than 20 years ago. Since then, he’s been churning out local news that matters to residents of the West Village and downtown New York. He has earned strong support within the community, and counts notable West Village residents like Sarah Jessica Parker among his many fans.
According to media reports, Mr. Capsis and WestView News were represented for a time by a lawyer who tried to convince Capsis to give him control of the paper. When that failed, the lawyer left the WestView News, took almost the entire staff with him, and started a competing paper. He called it the “New WestView News”—a name that Patch wryly described as “just a bit similar to the original.” The Village Sun reported that the competitor “replicate[d] the design of the original paper.” And the attorney proudly boasted that his actions might destroy his former client, telling the Sun that WestView “would collapse on its own without any staff.”
The WestView News accused the copycat competitor of unfair competition, including infringement of its logo, name, and intellectual property. Shockingly, Mr. Capsis’ ex-lawyer responded by suggesting that he had inside knowledge that Mr. Capsis did not trademark the name “WestView,” because the lawyer had represented Mr. Capsis and WestView. According to Curbed, the lawyer then threatened to sue his former client, Mr. Capsis.
Reporters covering the situation pondered whether Mr. Capsis was “afraid” of his former lawyer (“of course not,” he says). But in my opinion, that question obscures the real issue: a lawyer’s apparent decision to go to war against his former client.
The duty of unwavering loyalty is a cornerstone of the legal profession. An attorney’s loyalty to clients is not only an ethical obligation, but a moral imperative. Lawyers are entrusted with enormous responsibility to advocate aggressively for their clients’ best interests, and to represent them with zealous devotion. At our best, attorneys should fight on all fronts—in court, at the negotiating table, and in the public sphere—to help our clients advocate, persuade, and succeed. This obligation extends beyond the confines of any one case or matter, and encompasses the broader relationship between the attorney and client.
Yes, there are sometimes fee disputes or other minor issues that cannot be avoided. But the conflict between the WestView News and its former attorney is something very different: an attempt by a lawyer to stage a takeover of his client’s business and, failing that, to destroy it. It should go without saying that trying to harm a client is not only ethically questionable, but also violates an attorney’s moral obligations to safeguard client confidences, avoid conflicts, and protect the trust of the clients they are sworn to serve. It is also just bad business. What client would want a lawyer who may stage a mutiny to further his own interests?
Ultimately, those who seek to manipulate and exploit the trust of their clients must be held accountable. The WestView News saga should serve as a wake-up call to all of us to remain vigilant and steadfast in our commitment to transparency, integrity, ethical behavior, and most important, loyalty. New York City residents and advertisers have a choice in what papers they support. If they value loyalty, they should support the original—Mr. Capsis and the WestView News.
Justin T. Kelton is a partner and Co-Chair of the Litigation Department at Abrams Fensterman, LLP. His practice focuses on complex commercial litigation. He can be reached at 718-215-5300 or email@example.com. This article represents Mr. Kelton’s personal opinions only, and does not constitute legal advice.