United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division
J. HAZEL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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. 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." 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.
March 21, 2016. then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was
giving a press conference at the Old Post Office Pavilion in
Washington, D.C. 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. 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
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. TroopMedia.com is a
graphic design site:
troopmedia.com/index.html." ECF No. 16-3. A
user named "Erica" responded to Byers and Jacobs
with a comment: "because it's
troopmedia.org." Id. At 6:35 pm. Byers
tweeted a link to an article he had written on
money.cnn.com. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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."')).
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).
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).
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).