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Watkins v. Cable News Network, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

April 25, 2018

CABLE NEWS NETWORK, INC., et al., Defendants.



         Self-represented Plaintiff Alicia Watkins brings this defamation and false light claim against Defendants Cable News Network. Inc. ("CNN") and Dylan Byers, a CNN reporter, based on a series of publications on the social media website Twitter (commonly referred to as "tweets") and an article that CNN and Byers published about Watkins in March 2016. ECF No. 16 at 1.[1] As explained in further detail below. Watkins had appeared at a press conference for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, and several news organizations ran articles regarding Watkins's background."[2] In her Amended Complaint. Watkins alleges that Defendants are liable under causes of action for False Light and Defamation. Id. at 8-9. Watkins seeks compensatory damages of at least $2, 000, 000. and punitive damages of at least $5, 000, 000. Id. at 14. Now pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. ECF No. 18. No hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the following reasons. Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND[3]

         On March 21, 2016. then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was giving a press conference at the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C.[4] Trump called on Walkins. who was in the audience, to ask a question. Watkins said that she was a 9/11 survivor and was appreciative of Trump's policy towards the military. She asked him if he would hire military veterans at his Trump Hotel in Washington. Trump asked her what kind of position she was looking for, and invited her onto the stage. He told her that she looked "smart" and "good." and asked if she minded doing a job interview "right now." He proceeded to ask her what her experience was. and then directed her to an assistant who was standing on the side, and told the audience "she's probably going to have a job." Following the press conference. Watkins answered questions from other reporters regarding her background, and how she came to be at the press conference.[5] One reporter asked her "Do you work with the Veterans Affairs Department? Who do you write for? Do you write for somebody?'' Watkins responded "No. I'm a freelance artist. I submit stories and submit like on posts and blogs and everything else."[6]

         Following the press conference, at 5:23 pm on March 21. 2016. Byers tweeted that '"Trump spox says Alicia Watkins ... is woman who asked frump about job at hotel. No evidence she works for a media org." ECF No. 16-1 at 2. Byers also included a link to a Huffington Post article from March 2015 regarding Watkins" s background. Id. At 5:24 pro, a reporter for The Guardian. Hen Jacobs, responded that "She claimed she had her own website called "Troop Media' to reporters. No evidence of it on the Internet." ECF No. 16-2 at 2. At 5:25 pm, Byers responded '"None. is a graphic design site:" ECF No. 16-3. A user named "Erica" responded to Byers and Jacobs with a comment: "because it's" Id. At 6:35 pm. Byers tweeted a link to an article he had written on along with the caption "Somehow Alicia Watkins. who is not a reporter, got a press credential, which got her a job interview with Trump." ECF No. 16-4 at 2.

         In the article, titled "Behind Trump's 'job interview' with Alicia Watkins." Byers explains that Watkins "was not a member of the press." ECF No. 18-2 at 2. He states that she is "a retired Air Force staff sergeant who has appeared on Oprah." and "was given media credentials by the Trump campaign and permitted to ask a question of the candidate." Id. Byers goes on to relay that the Trump campaign "initially told CNNMoney that Watkins worked for 'a site called Troops Media which focuses on military and veterans issues." When told that there was no evidence of any such site on the Internet, the Trump campaign said it would look into the matter." Id. Furthermore. Byers described how after he tweeted that Troops Media did not seem to exist. "CNNMoney received a call from a woman who identified herself as Alicia Watkins who said she would send an email explaining "why Troop Media is no longer on the Internet as of today." The woman, who said her phone was about to run out of battery, hung up while being asked if she still wanted to identify herself as a reporter. . . . The promised email has yet to arrive, " Id. at3.

         On March 21, 2017. Watkins tiled a Complaint against CNN and Byers. ECF No. 1. On October 5. 2017. she tiled an Amended Complaint, and attached screenshots of the above-described tweets. ECF No. 16.[7] In her Amended Complaint. Watkins brings causes of action for false light and defamation. Id. at 8-9. Specifically, Watkins takes issue with Defendants' statements that "Plaintiffs website did not exist on the internet." id. at 8. "that Ms. Watkins is a dishonest non-member of the media who was 'behind' some plot." id. at 9. and that these statements were published because of CNN's "hatred and feud with President Trump." id. Watkins seeks compensatory damages of at least $2, 000, 000, and punitive damages of at least $5, 000, 000. Id. at 14.

         On October 26. 2017, Defendants tiled a Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. ECF No. 18. They argue that they are entitled to dismissal because: Watkins has not sufficiently pleaded plausible claims against them; no statement made by Defendants is substantially false; the statements contain non-actionable expressions of opinion; and Watkins. as a limited-purpose public figure, has not plausibly pleaded that the statements were made with actual malice. Id. at 2-3. On October 27. 201 7, the Clerk of the Court sent a letter to Watkins explaining that Defendants had filed a motion to dismiss against her, that she had the right to file a response, and that "'[i]f you do not file a timely written response, the Court may dismiss the case or enter judgment against you without further notice." ECF No. 19 at 1. Watkins has not filed a response. On February 16. 201 8. Defendants filed a "Notice of Supplemental Authority." notifying the Court that Judge Grimm had dismissed a similar case that Watkins filed against The Washington Post and two of its writers. ECF No. 20.


         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim lo relief that is plausible on its lace."' Ashcroft v. lqbal, 556 U.S. 662. 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544. 570 (2007)). "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. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 ("a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his "entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of a cause of action's elements will not do."')).

         The purpose of Rule 12(b)(6) "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." Presley v. City of Charlottesville. 464 F.3d 480. 483 (4th Cir. 2006) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). When deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court "must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint." and must "draw all reasonable inferences [from those facts] in favor of the plaintiff."' E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435. 440 (4lh Cir. 2011) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The Court need not. however, accept unsupported legal allegations, see Revene v. Charles County Comm'rs, 882 F.2d 870. 873 (4th Cir. 1989). legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). or conclusory factual allegations devoid of any reference to actual events, United Black Firefighters of Norfolk v. Hirst, 604 F.2d 844. 847 (4thOr. 1979).

         Accepting the facts as alleged in the Complaint as true, see Aziz v. Aicolac, 658 F.3d 388, 390 (4th Cir. 2011). when reviewing a motion to dismiss, the Court "may consider documents attached to the complaint, 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).

         The Court is mindful that Watkins is a pro se litigant. A federal court must liberally construe pro se pleadings to allow the development of potentially meritorious cases. See Erickson v. Patdus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Cruz v. Beta. 405 U.S. 319 (1972). Liberal construction does not mean, however, that this Court can ignore a clear failure in the pleadings to allege facts sufficient to state a claim. See Weller v. Department of Social Services. 901 F.2d 387. 391 (4th Cir. 1990). A court cannot assume a genuine issue of material fact where none exists. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c).

          III. ...

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