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Eichenwald v. Rivello

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 31, 2018




         Plaintiff Kurt Eichenwald brought this action against Defendant John Rivello over a year ago, on April 24, 2017. (Corrected Compl., ECF No. 2.). Defendant is facing criminal charges related to the same incident underlying this civil case, and therefore this case was stayed on August 28, 2017. (See Paperless Order, ECF No. 20.) On March 6, 2018, the Court partially lifted the stay and ordered Defendant to respond to Plaintiff's complaint by March 21, 2018. (Order to Partially Lift Stay, ECF No. 24.) Defendant responded by answering Counts II and III of Plaintiff's complaint (Ans., ECF No. 25), and moving to dismiss Counts I and IV (Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 26). Plaintiff has responded to Defendant's motion (ECF No. 27) and Defendant has replied (ECF No. 30). Therefore, Defendant's motion to dismiss is fully briefed and ripe for review. There is no need to hold a hearing to resolve the matter. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). Defendant's characterization of Texas law regarding civil battery is incorrect, and the Court will not foreclose Plaintiff's attempt to try his fourth count in a different court or at a later time. Accordingly, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendant's motion to dismiss, and dismiss Count IV of Plaintiff's complaint without prejudice.

         I. Background[1]

         Plaintiff is a journalist and author currently living in Texas. (Corrected Compl. ¶¶ 2-4.) Plaintiff's work is well known. He writes for Newsweek and Vanity Fair. (Id. ¶ 3.) He worked for years at the New York Times, has authored four books, and has won several awards including the George Polk Award (twice). (Id. ¶¶ 3-4.) He is an active Twitter user, having posted over 50, 000 tweets. (Id. ¶ 14.)

         Plaintiff also has epilepsy. (Corrected Compl. ¶ 5.) He was diagnosed at age 18, and “suffered from frequent seizures as a young adult.” (Id.) Medication has helped reduce the number of seizures, but he continues to experience them. (See Id. ¶¶ 5, 8.) Plaintiff has been public about his condition in the past and in 2016 wrote an article, published in Newsweek, titled “Sean Hannity: Apologize to Those with Epilepsy, or Burn in Hell.” (Id. ¶¶ 7-8.)

         During the 2016 election, Plaintiff was often critical of then-candidate Donald J. Trump, and expressed those views in his writing and on his Twitter account. (Corrected Compl. ¶¶ 15-16.) Plaintiff “received numerous threats and messages over the Internet” as a result of his public criticism, and wrote about the online abuse for Newsweek in October 2016. (Id. ¶ 17; see Kurt Eichenwald, How Donald Trump Supporters Attack Journalists, Newsweek, ECF No. 1-7 (hereinafter “October 2016 Article”).) In that article, Plaintiff wrote about one instance of online harassment in particular. Plaintiff “received a tweet from someone with the twitter handle ‘Mike's Deplorable AF.'” (October 2016 Article at 2.) In that tweet “Mike made mention of [Plaintiff's] seizures and included a small video . . . . The video was some sort of strobe light, with flashing circles and images . . . flying toward the screen.” (Id.) The video was “epileptogenic, ” meaning it “triggers seizures.” (Id.) Plaintiff did not suffer a seizure upon opening this video, however, because he quickly dropped the device. (Id.)

         Two months later, on December 15, 2016, a Twitter user with the handle @jew-goldstein, replied to one of Plaintiff's tweets. (Corrected Compl. ¶ 33.) When Plaintiff “clicked on the notification button on twitter, ” the replies to his tweet “immediately loaded, ” including the reply from @jew-goldstein. (Id. ¶ 43.) The tweet included (and immediately displayed) a Graphic Interchange Format (“GIF”) that contained “an animated strobe image flashing at a rapid speed.” (Id. ¶ 35.) In addition to the flashing images, the GIF contained the message “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.” (See Strobe GIF, Compl. ¶ 41.) Upon seeing the rapidly flashing GIF, “Plaintiff suffered a severe seizure.” (Id. ¶ 45.)

         For reasons that will become clear, it is necessary to briefly discuss the physical reactions that led to Plaintiff's seizure. Light comes in rays, or waves, comprised in part by photons. (Corrected Compl. ¶ 24.) These waves sometimes reflect off objects and “strike a person's cornea, ” which “focuses the light wave.” (Id. ¶ 25.) The eye focuses the wave onto its retina, which through a process of “visual phototransduction, ” converts the light wave into electrical impulses. (Id. ¶¶ 27-28.) That is, photons hit the retina and are converted into electrical signals. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29.) These electrical signals are then transmitted by the optic nerve to the visual cortex. (Id. ¶ 30.) Such electrical signals from strobing images “can trigger seizures in certain individuals with epilepsy.” (Id. ¶ 20.) So, Defendant intentionally caused photons to hit Plaintiff's retina, causing Plaintiff to suffer a seizure.

         Plaintiff's wife witnessed the seizure and, after caring for Plaintiff, called the police. (Id.¶¶ 50-51.) According to information obtained as a result of the criminal investigation, Defendant, who lives in Maryland, operated the @jew-goldstein account. (Id. ¶ 54.) Defendant discussed with others his intent to harm Plaintiff by causing a seizure. (See Id. ¶¶ 57-61.) Defendant was arrested on March 17, 2017, and three days later a grand jury indicted him for the offense of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. (¶¶ 55, 65; see Indictment, ECF No. 1-15.)

         Plaintiff continued to suffer as a result of the December 15 seizure. He experienced another seizure in his sleep, and he had to take increased medication, which left him sedated and disabled during the holidays. (Corrected Compl. ¶¶ 68-70.) He “required assistance from his family to perform routine tasks, ” and was “embarrassed, humiliated, and deeply upset, ” as a result of this incident. (Id. ¶¶ 70-71.)

         With the criminal case against Defendant still pending, Plaintiff filed a civil case against Defendant in this Court on April 24, 2017. Plaintiff brought four claims: (I) battery, (II) assault, (III) intentional infliction of emotional distress, and (IV) “purposeful infliction of bodily harm/prima facie tort under Texas law.” (Corrected Compl. ¶¶ 74-88.) The civil case was stayed pending resolution of the criminal case, but in an earlier order the Court partially lifted that stay and ordered Defendant to respond to Plaintiff's corrected complaint by March 21, 2018. Defendant responded on that date, answering Counts II and III, and moving to dismiss Counts I and IV. Defendant's motion to dismiss is fully briefed and ripe, and the Court will turn now to its disposition.

         II. Standard

         A complaint must contain “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Facial plausibility exists “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. An inference of a mere possibility of misconduct is not sufficient to support a plausible claim. Id. at 679. As the Twombly opinion stated, “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” 550 U.S. at 555. “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.' . . . Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557). Although when considering a motion to dismiss a court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint, this principle does not apply to legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         III. Applicable Law

         The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332, because the parties are diverse and the amount in controversy is over $75, 000. “In diversity actions, a district court applies the substantive law and choice of law rules of the state in which the court sits.” Chartis Prop. Cas. Co. v. Huguely, 243 F.Supp.3d 615, 622 (D. Md. 2017). The Court will therefore apply Maryland choice of law rules. “The rule of lex loci delicti is well established in Maryland, ” and under that rule, “the substantive tort law of the state where the wrong occurs governs.” Hauch v. Connor, 453 A.2d 1207, 1209 (Md. 1983). Plaintiff has alleged that he was harmed in Texas, and therefore the ...

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