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Olukoya v. Sowore

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 1, 2019

OMOYELE SOWORE, as an Individual, and SAHARA REPORTERS MEDIA GROUP, INC., a New York Corporation Doing Business as Sahara Reporters, Defendants.


          Theodore D. Chuang United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Daniel Kolawole Olukoya, Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, Inc. ("MFM Nevada"), and Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, Bowie, Maryland, Inc. ("MFM Bowie"), have filed this civil action against Defendants Omoyele Sowore and Sahara Reporters Media Group, Inc. ("Sahara"), alleging that Defendants defamed them in two online articles published in September and October 2017. Plaintiffs assert common law tort claims for defamation, defamation per se, and false light. Presently pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Upon review of the submitted materials, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See D. Md. Local R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.


         Olukoya is the founder and General Overseer of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries ("MFM"), an international ministry formed in Nigeria with branches in Maryland and across the United States. The church's United States headquarters is located in Nevada. Sowore is the operator of Sahara Reporters, an online news outlet based in New York, which mainly reports on events affecting Nigeria. The parties have a long and tenuous history, dating back to 2013 when Sahara Reporters published an article alleging that MFM church security assaulted and detained its reporters at a New Year's Eve event. The 2013 article is not at issue in the current case.

         The present action centers around two articles published by Sahara on its website in the fall of 2017 which reported on litigation involving MFM and MFM Nevada. The first article, published on September 27, 2017 and entitled Former Mountain of Fire Ministries Pastors Accuses General Overseer Olukoya of Illegal Importation of Goods in U.S. Property Dispute ("the September Article"), primarily reports on a civil lawsuit that was then pending in the Circuit Court of Maryland for Prince George's County ("the Maryland Action"). That case had been filed by MFM and MFM Nevada against several former church members, including MFM Bowie's former pastor Lawrence Adetunji, who allegedly misappropriated assets owned by MFM and MFM Nevada to form a new religious corporation. In the article, Sahara wrote that "the defendants alleged that the plaintiffs had willfully and intentionally evaded U.S. Customs Service duties and had evaded tax payments to the United States Government" on prayer books shipped from Nigeria for many years. Am. Compl. ¶ 18, ECF No. 21. Plaintiffs allege that these accusations, which were lifted from the Amended Answer and Amended Counterclaims of the Maryland Action defendants, are false and misleading, as they are unsubstantiated due to the lack of evidence offered by Pastor Adetunji and his wife in their depositions, which occurred several months before the article's publications, or at the subsequent trial. In the September Article, Sahara also briefly described a similar civil action brought by MFM against former Pastor Ade Oyeyemi in the Superior Court of Los Angeles, California ("the California Action") and reported that the California Court of Appeal "ultimately decided the case in favor of Pastor Oyeyemi." Am. Compl. ¶ 31. Plaintiffs allege that this aspect of the September Article was also false and misleading because Oyeyemi was only partially successful on appeal.

         The second Sahara article, published on October 19, 2017 and entitled GO of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries Daniel Olukoya Falsely Claims Residence of U.S. State of Maryland ("the October Article"), also reports on the Maryland Action and information derived from its filings. The article states that in a motion to compel filed in the Maryland Action, "the defendants stated that they requested [Olukoya's] presence at deposition or trial via a subpoena served through the plaintiffs . . . attorney, but the plaintiff refused to produce Olukoya for that purpose." Am. Compl. ¶ 37. Plaintiffs contend that MFM objected to the deposition because Olukoya, who was not a party to the Maryland Action, was not properly served, is not a United States citizen or resident, and was traveling in Europe at the time. They also note that the October Article neglects to mention that MFM and MFM Nevada offered to arrange for Olukoya to appear by video for his deposition, but the Maryland Action defendants declined.

         The October Article also asserts that Olukoya "falsely affirmed himself to be a legal resident of the State of Maryland in the United States for business purposes." Id. The article states that in the Articles of Incorporation of the MFM church in Baltimore ("MFM Baltimore"), which were attached to a filing in the Maryland Action, "Olukoya claimed to be a Resident Agent for Service for MFM Baltimore, and personally signed the Articles in that capacity." Id. Plaintiffs allege that these statements are false and misleading because the Articles of Incorporation list Olukoya only as a trustee with an address in Nigeria.

         On September 20, 2018, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in this Court asserting claims of defamation (Count 1), defamation per se (Count 2), and false light (Count 3). After Defendants filed a Notice of Intent to file a Motion to Dismiss, the Court granted Plaintiffs leave to file an amended complaint, pursuant to an agreement of the parties that "if the Court finds the amended complaint deficient on a basis identified in the Notice of Intent to File a Motion, ECF No. 17, Plaintiff will not be granted further leave to amend." Order at 1, ECF No. 20. Plaintiffs then filed an Amended Complaint with supplemental factual allegations in support of the same three counts, and Defendants moved to dismiss consistent with the arguments raised in their Notice of Intent.


         Defendants seek dismissal of all counts of the Amended Complaint on the basis that the fair report privilege shields them from defamation liability. As an alternative argument, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have not adequately pleaded falsity as to the portion of the October Article accusing Olukoya of falsely claiming Maryland residency. Finally, Defendants state that Plaintiffs' false light claim must be dismissed because under Maryland law, a claim for false light will not stand unless the claim also meets the standards for a defamation claim.

         I. Legal Standards

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         To defeat a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the complaint must allege enough facts to state a plausible claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A claim is plausible when the facts pleaded allow "the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Legal conclusions or conclusory statements do not suffice. Id. The Court must examine the complaint as a whole, consider the factual allegations in the complaint as true, and construe the factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 268 (1994); Lambeth v. Bd. of Comm 'rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 268 (4th Cir. 2005).

         In support of the Motion, Defendants have submitted various exhibits, including the September Article, the October Article, and certain filings from the Maryland Action. Courts are permitted to consider documents attached to a motion to dismiss "when the document is integral to and explicitly relied on in the complaint, and when the plaintiffs do not challenge the document's authenticity." Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Int'l, Ltd.,780 F.3d 597, 606-07 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Am. Chiropractic Ass'n v. Trigon Healthcare, Inc.,367 F.3d 212, 234 (4th Cir. 2004)). Courts may also consider facts and documents subject to judicial notice without converting a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. Clatterbuck v. City of Charlottesville, 708 F.3d 549, 557 (4th Cir. 2013). "Under this exception, courts may consider 'relevant facts obtained from the public record,' so long as these facts are construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff along with the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint." Id. (quoting B.H. Papasan v. Allain,578 U.S. 265, 283 (1986)); see also Zak, 780 F.3d at 607 ("[C]ourts at any stage of a proceeding may judicially notice a fact that is not subject to reasonable dispute, provided that the fact is generally known within the court's territorial jurisdiction or can be accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy ...

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