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Watkins v. Carr

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 13, 2018

ALICIA N. WATKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANTHONY CARR, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PAULA XINIS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court in this defamation action is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants Bright Mountain Media Group and JQPUBLIC (ECF No. 29), and a motion filed by pro se Plaintiff Alicia N. Watkins (“Watkins”) for extension of time to file her opposition to summary judgment. ECF No. 34. The Court now rules because no hearing is necessary. See D. Md. Loc. R. 105.6. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's motion for extension of time and GRANTS Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         I. Background

         Bright Mountain Media Group (“Bright Mountain”) owns and operates JQPUBLIC (“JQP”), a website that hosts blogposts focused on the military and government, with particular attention paid to the Air Force. See ECF No. 7 at 3, ECF No. 29 at 4. On March 24, 2016, a blogpost was published on JQP concerning a public meeting between Watkins, an Air Force veteran, and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump (“Trump”).[1] After Trump Event, New Questions About Air Force Vet's Backstory, John Q. Public (Mar. 24, 2016), http://www.jqpublicblog.com/trump-event-new-questions-air-force-vets-backstory/ (“JQP Blogpost”). During a media event at Trump's hotel project in Washington, D.C., Watkins, wearing press credentials, asked Trump a question about veteran employment. Id. Trump brought Watkins to the podium, and after a brief conversation, offered her a job in his organization. Id. The blogpost links to news coverage of the exchange from, among others, CNN and Air Force Times. These reports questioned the authenticity of Watkins' supposed media credentials. Id.

         The blogpost itself also questions the plausibility of Watkins' representations made to Trump and while appearing on other news and entertainment shows, to include the timing of Watkins' injuries in the September 11 terrorist attacks or in Afghanistan and the circumstances leading to her separation from the Air Force. Id. Notably, the blogpost was careful “[n]ot to outright label Watkins a liar or Charlatan, ” but rather aimed to “highlight ambiguities” unearthed in researching Watkins' historic representations about her service. Id. The blogpost ultimately acknowledged that “the remarkable story of Alicia Watkins, ” may be “totally legitimate, ” but nonetheless opined that the “endless string of assertions and inferences [], while strictly plausible, require us to stretch to believe them.” Id.

         Watkins filed this case against Bright Mountain, JQP, and Anthony Carr[2] (the ostensible author) based on this blogpost, asserting claims of false light, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[3] ECF No. 1 at 4, 5, 7. As relief, Watkins seeks $30, 000, 000 in damages. Id. at 11.

         Bright Mountain and JQP (collectively, “Defendants”) initially moved to compel arbitration based on the website's terms of use. ECF No. 6. The Court denied Defendants' motion to compel arbitration, ECF No. 19, and issued a discovery scheduling order. ECF No. 23. Watkins did not participate in discovery at all. ECF No. 27.

         At the close of the discovery period, Defendants moved for summary judgment. ECF No. 29. The Court held a status conference on September 5, 2018, and extended Watkins' time to respond to the motion for summary judgment until September 18, 2018. ECF No. 32. The Court also granted Watkins the opportunity to file a motion to reopen discovery for good cause. Id. Watkins did not move to reopen discovery.

         Watkins thereafter moved for an extension of time to respond to the summary judgment motion. ECF No. 34. In it, Watkins explained that she had submitted a “partial and incomplete filing” on September 18, 2018, and requested additional time to supplement her response. Id. Because Plaintiff proceeds pro se, the Court grants the extension nunc pro tunc and considers Plaintiff's response at ECF No. 33.

         II.

         Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the Court, construing all evidence and drawing all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, finds no genuine dispute exists as to any material fact, thereby entitling the movant to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see In re Family Dollar FLSA Litig., 637 F.3d 508, 512 (4th Cir. 2011). Summary judgment must be granted “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). “In responding to a proper motion for summary judgment, ” the opposing party “must present evidence of specific facts from which the finder of fact could reasonably find for him or her.” Venugopal v. Shire Labs., 334 F.Supp.2d 835, 840 (D. Md. 2004), aff'd sub nom. Venugopal v. Shire Labs., Inc., 134 Fed.Appx. 627 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23)). Genuine disputes of material fact are not created “through mere speculation or the building of one inference upon another.” Othentec Ltd. v. Phelan, 526 F.3d 135, 140 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Beale v. Hardy, 769 F.2d 213, 214 (4th Cir. 1985)). Where a party's statement of a fact is “blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, ” the Court credits the record. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).

         III. Analysis

         A. ...


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