United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division
ALICIA N. WATKINS, Plaintiff,
THE WASHINGTON POST, ET AL., Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
W. GRIMM, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Alicia Watkins attended a press conference with
then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. During the press
conference, Ms. Watkins asked Mr. Trump a question, and then
he proceeded to conduct an impromptu job interview of her.
The Washington Post and other news organizations published
articles surrounding the press conference in which they
disclosed information they had learned about Ms. Watkins, who
was previously unknown to them. Ms. Watkins is aggrieved
about what these stories said, and filed this litigation on
March 24, 2017. Compl., ECF No. 1. Acting without an
attorney, she brings four counts against the Washington Post
and the authors of its articles, Callum Borchers and Emily
Heil: False Light (Count I), Defamation (Count II),
Publication with Actual Malice (Count III), and Intentional
Infliction of Emotional Distress (Count IV). Am. Compl.
Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss all of
Plaintiff's claims. Defs.' Mot., ECF No.
Because Ms. Watkins has failed to adequately plead her claims
for defamation, false light, and intentional infliction of
emotional distress and her claim with actual malice is not an
independent cause of action, I will grant Defendants'
motion and dismiss this case with prejudice.
March 2016, Plaintiff Alicia Watkins, “a disabled 9/11
Survivor, formerly homeless veteran, and wounded warrior,
” attended a press conference held by then-presidential
candidate, Donald Trump “to advocate for homeless and
jobless veterans.” Am. Compl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 18. At
the press conference, Mr. Trump interviewed Ms. Watkins and
said that if an agreement could be reached regarding salary,
she would probably be offered employment. The interview
became the subject of three Washington Post articles
published on March 21, 22, and 25, 2016, and is the focus of
this litigation. Id. ¶¶ 1, 27.
Watkins alleges that the three articles were written because
of the Washington Post's distain for Trump and that the
information published defamed her. See Id.
¶¶ 34, 39, 43. Ms. Watkins specifically alleges
that the Washington Post articles mischaracterized her
enrollment at Harvard University, id. ¶¶
23, 29, “belittled” her by referring to her as a
“beauty queen, ” id. ¶ 21, and
misstated aspects of her military service record to include
her dates of service and the locations where she has served,
id. ¶¶ 27, 29-30. Ms. Watkins also alleges
that “Ms [sic] Heil then published the name and
location of Ms. Watkins's partner which was highly
shielded information because of his classified position which
even the show Ms. Heil referenced for the leak didn't
reveal.” Id. ¶ 22.
Watkins does not particularize which articles contained which
statement, but she does attach the articles to her Amended
Complaint. The only allegedly defamatory statement in
the March 21, 2016 article is a reference to Ms. Watkins as a
“former beauty queen.” ECF No. 18-1. The March
22, 2016 article discusses Ms. Watkins's Harvard
enrollment, refers to her as a “beauty queen, ”
states that she retired from the military in 2008, and
discloses information about her partner. ECF No. 18-2. The
March 25, 2016 article also refers to her as a “beauty
queen” and discusses her military service record and
her Harvard enrollment. ECF No. 18-3.
Watkins filed her initial complaint on March 24, 2017.
Compl., ECF No. 1. Consistent with the order that I issued at
the start of this case governing the filing of motions,
Defendants filed a pre-motion letter, stating the grounds for
a motion to dismiss that they wanted to file. Pre-Mot. Ltr.,
ECF No. 12. I allowed Ms. Watkins the opportunity to amend
her complaint to address the deficiencies Defendants
identified in their letter, ECF No. 17, and she filed the
Amended Complaint, ECF No. 18. Defendants, still believing
the pleading to be deficient for the reasons previously
disclosed to her in their pre-motion letter, have moved to
dismiss. ECF No. 23.
parties jointly submitted and I approved a briefing schedule
for this motion, allowing them more time than this
Court's Local Rules allow in which to complete the
briefing process. ECF Nos. 19, 22. Although Ms. Watkins
initially had one month to file an opposition to the motion
to dismiss, she requested and I granted two extensions of
time, permitting her more than seven weeks in total to file
her opposition. ECF Nos. 25, 26, 27, 28. Ultimately, however,
Ms. Watkins did not file a substantive response. Rather, her
response to Defendants' motion only stated that she was
requesting a hearing on the motion “because Plaintiff
would be unjustly wronged if Judge dismisses Plaintiff's
case because of [unstated] circumstances beyond the Plaintiff
[sic] control which would not prejudice Defendants.”
Pl.'s Opp'n 1. As provided in the Local Rules, unless
otherwise ordered by the Court, all motions are to be decided
without a hearing. Loc. R. 105.6.
when a defendant's motion to dismiss a complaint states
specific deficiencies that warrant dismissal, and presents
supporting legal arguments, it is the plaintiff's
obligation to respond substantively to address them. Failure
to respond to the defendants' arguments constitutes
abandonment of those claims. See Whittaker v. David's
Beautiful People, Inc., No. DKC-14-2483, 2016 WL 429963,
at *3 n.3 (D. Md. Feb. 4, 2016); Sewell v. Strayer
Univ., 956 F.Supp.2d 658, 669 n.9 (D. Md. 2013);
Ferdinand-Davenport v. Children's Guild, 742
F.Supp.2d 772, 777 & 783 (D. Md. 2010). Any abandoned
claims are subject to dismissal with prejudice.
Sewell, 2013 WL 6858867, at *4 (“retaliation
claim was dismissed with prejudice . . . because she
abandoned [the] claim by failing to address it in the reply
brief.”); Farrish v. Navy Fed. Credit Union,
No. DKC-16-1429, 2017 WL 4418416, at *3 (D. Md. Oct. 5,
2017). While abandonment of claims by failing to file an
opposition to a dispositive motion alone may be a sufficient
reason to dismiss a complaint, I nonetheless will
independently consider the substantive sufficiency of her
Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for “the
dismissal of a complaint if it fails to state a claim upon
which relief can be granted.” Velencia v.
Drezhlo, No. RDB-12-237, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (D. Md.
Dec. 13, 2012). This rule's purpose “is to test the
sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests
surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the
applicability of defenses.” Id. (quoting
Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480,
483 (4th Cir. 2006)). To that end, the Court bears in mind
the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8, Bell Atlantic Corp.
v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), when considering a motion to
dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Specifically, a complaint
must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim
showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and must state “a plausible claim
for relief, ” as “[t]hreadbare recitals of the
elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory
statements, do not suffice, ” Iqbal, 556 U.S.
at 678-79. See Velencia, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4
(discussing standard from Iqbal and
Twombly). “A claim has facial plausibility
when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the
court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is
liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556
U.S. at 678.
is proceeding pro se, and her Complaint is to be
construed liberally. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S.
519, 520 (1972). However, liberal construction does not
absolve Plaintiff from pleading plausible claims. See
Holsey v. Collins, 90 F.R.D. 122, 128 (D. Md. 1981)
(citing Inmates v. Owens, 561 F.2d 560, 562-63 (4th
at this stage of the proceedings, I accept the well pleaded
facts alleged in Ms. Watkins's Complaint as true, see
Aziz v. Alcolac, 658 F.3d 388, 390 (4th Cir. 2011), when
reviewing a motion to dismiss, I “may consider
documents attached to the complaint, ” such as the
three articles at issue, “as well as documents attached
to the motion to dismiss, if they are integral to the
complaint and their authenticity is not disputed.”
Sposato v. First Mariner Bank, No. CCB-12-1569, 2013
WL 1308582, at *2 (D. Md. Mar. 28, 2013); see CACI
Int'l v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 566
F.3d 150, 154 (4th Cir. 2009); see also Fed. R. Civ.
P. 10(c) (“A copy of a written instrument that is an
exhibit to a pleading is a part of the pleading for all
purposes.”). Moreover, where the allegations in the
complaint conflict with an attached written instrument,
“the exhibit prevails.” Fayetteville
Inv'rs v. Commercial Builders, Inc., 936 F.2d 1462,
1465 (4th Cir. 1991); see Azimirad v. HSBC Mortg.
Corp., No. DKC-10-2853, 2011 WL 1375970, at *2-3 (D. Md.
Apr. 12, 2011). Accordingly, where Ms. Watkin's
characterization of the contents of the three articles
conflicts with the articles themselves, it is the articles
I: False Light and Count II: Defamation
law is clear. Defamation actions have a one year statute
of limitations, Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. §
5-105, which begins to run “when the plaintiff knew or
reasonably should have known that the defendant committed a
wrongful act which injured or damaged the plaintiff.”
Hickey v. St. Martin's Press, Inc., 978 F.Supp.
230, 235 (D. Md. 1997) (citing Sears Roebuck & Co. v.
Ulman, 287 Md. 397, 401, 412 A.2d 1240 (1980)). In cases
involving the mass media, the plaintiff reasonably should
have known of the allegedly defamatory information when it is
published. Tani v. Washington Post, No. PJM-08-1130,
2009 WL 8652384, at *2 (D. Md. June 18, 2009) (“Because
these articles were widely available online and could have
been discovered immediately, the statute of limitations began
to accrue on the date the articles were published.”);
see also Shepard v. Nabb, 581 A.2d 839, 844 (Md. Ct.
Spec. App. 1990) (holding that the statute of limitations is
not tolled absent the plaintiff demonstrating that he or she
did not know or could not reasonably have known of the
argue that two of the three articles should not be considered
in this litigation because the statute of limitations began
to run when they were published on March 21 and 22, 2016, and
therefore, the one year statute of limitations elapsed before
Ms. Watkins filed suit on March 24, 2017. Defs.' Mem.
7-9. Ms. Watkins does not dispute the publication dates and
has provided both articles with their corresponding
publication dates as attachments to her Complaint. And, even
though her Amended Complaint alleges that she discovered the
articles on March 25, 2016, Am. Compl. ¶ 17, the
publication dates, not the Plaintiff's actual discovery
date, are the dates that trigger the statute of limitations
for mass media publications. See Tani, 2009 WL
8652384, at *2; Bagwell v. Peninsula Reg'l Med.
Ctr., 665 A.2d 297, 316 (1995) (“[A]ll libel and
slander claims must be filed within one year of the date on
which the damaging statements were improperly
communicated.”). The two articles that were published
prior to March 24, 2016, therefore, are barred by the statute
of limitations and will not be considered with regard to the
defamation claim. See id.
the only article that I will consider for purposes of the
defamation claim is the March 25, 2016 article by Callum
Borchers entitled “The curious case of the woman Donald
Trump ‘interviewed' for a job this week.”
March 25, 2016 Article, ECF No. 18-3. However, Ms. Watkins
may bring a claim of false light with regard to all three
articles, as there is a three-year statute ...