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Watkins v. The Washington Post

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

February 9, 2018




         Plaintiff 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. 23.[1] 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.


         In 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.

         Ms. 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.”[2] Id. ¶ 22.

         Ms. Watkins does not particularize which articles contained which statement, but she does attach the articles to her Amended Complaint.[3] 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.

         Ms. 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.

         The 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.

         Notably, 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 claims.

         Standard of Review

         Federal 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.

         Plaintiff 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 Cir. 1977)).

         Although 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 that control.


         Count I: False Light and Count II: Defamation

         Statute of Limitations

         Maryland law is clear.[4] 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 defamatory statements).

         Defendants 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.

         Thus, 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 ...

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