Aloha pilot asks court to dismiss Mesa lawsuit
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Aloha Airlines pilot Mike Uslan will ask a U.S. District Court on Monday in Phoenix to dismiss a lawsuit by Mesa Air Group Inc. alleging Uslan's involvement in a Web site critical of Mesa's new interisland carrier, go!
Mesa claims Uslan has admitted providing material for dontflygo.com. Mesa said the site posted content that defamed and made false statements about Mesa.
Uslan has testified that he has never been the owner of the site or controlled or managed its content. In the motion being heard Monday, Uslan's attorney will argue that filing the case in Arizona was a bid to make his defense more difficult.
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Aloha Airlines pilot Mike Uslan makes about $68,000 a year flying Boeing 737-200s from Honolulu to the neighbor islands.
Mesa Air Group Inc., which operates the 1-year-old Hawaii carrier go!, has annual revenue in excess of $1.3 billion.
In a case pitting David against Goliath, the 37-year-old pilot and his Honolulu-based attorney, Jeffrey Miller, will ask U.S. District Judge James Teilborg on Monday in Phoenix to dismiss a lawsuit that Mesa brought against Uslan in January for his alleged involvement in an anti-go! Web site. A motion filed by the Hawaii-based Uslan and his attorney seeks to dismiss the complaint due to lack of jurisdiction.
"You just can't sue somebody in a distant court," said Miller, noting that Uslan hasn't physically been in Arizona since 2003. "You have to sue in a local court. (Phoenix-based) Mesa chose to sue in Phoenix to make it more expensive and difficult for Mr. Uslan."
A former Mesa pilot, Uslan, a fourth-year first officer, has been outspoken against go! because of what go!'s presence might mean to Aloha's survival. He wrote letters to newspapers and had a leadership role in an opposition group calling itself H.E.R.O. (Hawaii's airline Employees Repelling Ornstein). That grass-roots group was disbanded shortly after Uslan's participation with about 20 other airline employees last November in signing anti-Semitic and profane slurs on a T-shirt that was mailed to Mesa Chairman and Chief Executive Jonathan Ornstein.
Uslan also has been linked by Mesa to the Web site dontflygo.com, which posted articles and commentary critical of Mesa and Ornstein. But in court documents, Uslan testified that he has never been the registered owner of the site or controlled or managed its content.
Mesa claims in its lawsuit that Uslan has admitted involvement in providing material for the dontflygo Web site. Mesa said the site posted content that defamed Mesa, made false statements, and competed unfairly by using Mesa's trade names and service marks as meta tags. Mesa said the meta tags, which are Web codes that identify characteristics and topics of pages for search engines, directed potential customers conducting Internet searches with Mesa's name to the "defamatory Web site."
Since the suit was filed, the Web site, which is run by an unidentified individual or group, has been stripped of much of its content and now only contains links to stories and other Web sites.
The suit by Mesa against Uslan raises the question of when Constitutionally-guaranteed free speech becomes defamation. Honolulu media attorney Jeff Portnoy, acknowledging he has limited information on the case, said defamation on the Internet is not that different than print.
"It often comes down to whether the statements are true or whether statements are protected opinion," he said.
Portnoy said these types of suits filed by big corporations "to silence Internet critics are becoming very fashionable."
"They have mixed success, but are clearly David versus Goliath cases. Sometimes David wins."
Uslan already has spent in excess of $10,000 in legal fees on the case, according to his attorney, and is seeking contributions through the Web site, www.mesavsuslan.com, to help defray costs.
"I don't make enough to pay for meritless lawsuits," Uslan said.
Miller contends that Mesa decided to make Uslan "the poster boy for H.E.R.O" and to sue him in order to find out through deposition and discovery who's responsible for the anti-go! Web site.
"He's the whipping boy," Miller said.
Some industry insiders have questioned why Mesa and Ornstein would sue the pilot of a rival airline. Ornstein said yesterday he had been advised by his attorneys not to comment on ongoing litigation. However, after receiving the H.E.R.O. T-shirt in November, Ornstein said: "We're all deeply offended by it, and if this is the level that people have gone to, it's a bad strategy."
Uslan said yesterday the suit has "no merits" and he doesn't know why "Ornstein hates me."
He said the suit has him stressed out.
"It's impacted my life immensely," Uslan said. "It has made my family stronger because speaking out against inequities and inconsistencies, it's the right thing to do ethically and morally. I speak the truth. The truth is on my side. I have nothing to gain from this lawsuit."
David Banmiller, president and chief executive of Aloha, declined to comment ahead of the hearing. But he and Aloha are clearly interested observers. Aloha has alleged in a lawsuit against Mesa that the carrier is offering unrealistic fares to drive Aloha out of business, and has used proprietary information obtained as a potential bidder during Aloha's bankruptcy.