Hosszu v. Barrett et al

Filing 48

ORDER granting 26 Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. All claims are dismissed with prejudice. The Clerk of Court is directed to enter judgment accordingly. Signed by Judge G Murray Snow on 8/12/16.(EJA)

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1 WO 2 3 4 5 6 IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 7 FOR THE DISTRICT OF ARIZONA 8 9 Katinka Hosszu, No. CV-15-02285-PHX-GMS Plaintiff, 10 11 v. 12 ORDER Casey Barrett, et al., 13 Defendants. 14 Pending before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss by Defendants. (Doc. 26.) For 15 16 the following reasons, the Court grants the motion. BACKGROUND 17 18 Katinka Hosszu (“Hosszu”) is a world-famous professional swimmer. (Compl. 19 ¶ 4.) A three-time1 Olympian, five-time World Champion, and Hungarian Sportswoman 20 of the Year, Hosszu enjoys a generous backing from corporate and athletic equipment 21 sponsors. (Id.) She has a large fan base and is a national source of pride for her native 22 Hungary. (Id.) 23 On May 20th, 2015, former Olympic swimmer and swim commentator Casey 24 Barrett posted an article entitled The Smell of Smoke on his blog, Cap & Goggles, and 25 Swimming World Magazine (“SWM”) published a substantially similar version of his 26 article entitled Are Katinka Hosszu’s Performances Being Aided? (collectively, “the May 27 1 28 Hosszu was a three-time Olympian when she filed her Complaint; she is now a fourtime Olympian. Although Hosszu has garnered additional successes since the filing of the Complaint, this Order relies on the facts as alleged. 1 20th article”).2 (Compl. ¶ 32.) Hosszu alleges that the May 20th article published false 2 “assertions of fact” which accuse her of using performance-enhancing drugs to achieve 3 her success. (Compl. ¶ 33, 48.) 4 However, both parties stipulate that Barrett repeatedly conceded in the May 20th 5 article that he did not have any proof, such as failed drug tests, to demonstrate that 6 Hosszu ever used performance-enhancing drugs. Instead, Hosszu alleges that the May 7 20th article accuses her of using performance-enhancing drugs by discussing her 8 remarkable comeback after the 2012 Olympic Games, as well as her unusual ability to 9 recover quickly in between events. 10 Hosszu further alleges that on August 3, 2015, Barrett published an article entitled 11 Women Rule the Worlds, which republished the May 20th article’s defamatory statements. 12 (Compl. ¶ 44.) Hosszu further claims that Barrett and SWM collaborated to publish at 13 least two other articles entitled Doping: How to Not Get Caught and Suspicious Minds 14 and the Doping Rumor Mill about performance-enhancing drug abuse which are 15 “reasonably understood to refer to Hosszu.” (Compl. ¶ 45.) 16 Hosszu alleges that Barrett, SWM, and Does 1-20 (“Defendants”) harmed her 17 reputation and caused the public and others to hold her in contempt. (Compl. ¶ 49.) She 18 claims that sponsors discontinued backing her, that she has been subjected to heightened 19 drug testing, and that she is questioned about the “doping allegations” at every interview. 20 (Compl. ¶¶ 38–39.) Hosszu brings claims for defamation and false light. 21 22 DISCUSSION I. Legal Standard 23 To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule 24 of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to state a claim to 25 26 27 28 2 The Court grants Defendants’ Request for Judicial Notice for Exhibits 1–7 (Doc. 27). See Coto Settlement v. Eisenberg, 593 F.3d 1031, 1038 (9th Cir. 2010) (extending the doctrine of incorporation to “documents in situations where the complaint necessarily relies upon a document or the contents of the document are alleged in a complaint”). However, the Court denies Defendants’ Request for Judicial notice for Exhibits 8–33 (Doc. 27) because the complaint does not rely upon these documents. Id. -2- 1 relief that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “A claim 2 has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to 3 draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” 4 Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. 5 requirement,’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted 6 unlawfully.” Id. “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability 7 “[T]he tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a 8 complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Id. “When there are well-pleaded factual 9 allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they 10 plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. at 679. “Determining whether a 11 complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that 12 requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. 13 II. Analysis 14 15 “[T]o survive [a] motion to dismiss, [a plaintiff] must not only establish that the 16 [statements] about which [she] complain[s] are reasonably capable of sustaining a 17 defamatory meaning, [she] must also show that they are not mere comment within the 18 ambit of the First Amendment.” Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1073–74 (9th Cir. 19 2005) (internal citation omitted). “Although defamation is primarily governed by state 20 law, the First Amendment safeguards for freedom of speech and press limit state law.” 21 Underwager v. Channel 9 Australia, 69 F.3d 361, 366 (9th Cir. 1995). “The scope of 22 constitutional protection extends to statements of opinion on matters of public concern 23 that do not contain or imply a provable factual assertion.” Id. (citing Milkovich v. Lorain 24 J. Co., 497 U.S. 1, 20 (1990)). Because “expressions of ‘opinion’ may often imply an 25 assertion of objective fact,” there is no “wholesale defamation exemption for anything 26 that might be labeled ‘opinion.’” Milkovich, 497 U.S. at 18. For example, “[i]f a speaker 27 says, “In my opinion John Jones is a liar,” he implies a knowledge of facts which lead to 28 the conclusion that Jones told an untruth.” Id. “‘Simply couching such statements in -3- 1 terms of opinion does not dispel [the false, defamatory] implications’ because a speaker 2 may still imply ‘a knowledge of facts which lead to the [defamatory] conclusion.’” 3 Partington v. Bugliosi, 56 F.3d 1147, 1152-53 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Milkovich, 497 4 U.S. at 19). 5 “A statement of fact is not shielded from an action for defamation by being 6 prefaced with the words ‘in my opinion,’ but if it is plain that the speaker is expressing a 7 subjective view, an interpretation, a theory, conjecture, or surmise, rather than claiming 8 to be in possession of objectively verifiable facts, the statement is not actionable.” Id. at 9 1156. “[W]hen an author outlines the facts available to him, thus making it clear that the 10 challenged statements represent his own interpretation of those facts and leaving the 11 reader free to draw his own conclusions, those statements are generally protected by the 12 First Amendment.” Id. at 1156-57. 13 “[T]he threshold question in defamation suits is . . . whether a reasonable 14 factfinder could conclude that the statement implies an assertion of objective fact.” 15 Unelko Corp. v. Rooney, 912 F.2d 1049, 1053 (9th Cir. 1990) (internal quotations 16 omitted). 17 Partington, 56 F.3d at 1153. The Ninth Circuit has “adopted a three-part test” as a 18 “starting point” for this analysis: “(1) whether the general tenor of the entire work negates 19 the impression that the defendant was asserting an objective fact, (2) whether the 20 defendant used figurative or hyperbolic language that negates that impression, and (3) 21 whether the statement in question is susceptible of being proved true or false.” Id. (citing 22 Unelko, 912 F.2d at 1053). Courts should consider the “totality of the circumstances.” 23 Knievel, 393 F.3d at 1074. The Court examines “the work as a whole, the specific 24 context in which the statements were made, and the statements themselves to determine 25 whether a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the statements imply a false assertion 26 of objective fact and therefore fall outside of the protection of the First Amendment.” 27 Partington, 56 F.3d at 1153. “If the answer is no, the claim is foreclosed by the First Amendment.” 28 -4- 1 Here, Barrett stated in the first sentence of the May 20th article that “there is no 2 proof” that Hosszu is aiding her performances with drugs. (Doc. 27-1 at Ex. 1, PDF 2.) 3 Barrett based his conclusion on facts about Hosszu’s recent achievements, her unusual 4 ability to recover in between races, and her body type changes. (Doc. 27 at Ex. 1, 2, 7.) 5 Barrett outlined the facts available to him, and Hosszu does not dispute the truth of those 6 facts. The May 20th article states that “[n]o one competes, consistently, at a higher level 7 than [Hosszu] does,” and adds that “[h]er consistency, her ability to recover, and her 8 never-flagging form continues [sic] without breakdown, regardless of when or where the 9 race is going down.” (Doc. 27-1 at Ex. 1, PDF 3.) Barrett illustrated this general 10 observation by detailing Hosszu’s performance at the Charlotte Arena Pro Swim Series 11 the weekend before the May 20th article’s publication: 12 16 Hosszu raced in seven individual events. She won six: the 200 free and the 400 IM on day one; the 200 fly and 100 back on day two (along with a why-not 9th in the 400 free); and the 200 IM and 200 back on day three. It was that last double on the third day that caught many eyes. Within a sixteen minute span, Hosszu posted the top time in the world this year in the 200 IM (2:08.66) and returned after a gasp of a warm-down later with a 200 back in 2:07.79, the third fastest time on earth this year. 17 (Id.) Barrett contrasted Hosszu’s performance with the “very tired, in-training swims” of 18 “most of the superstars in attendance.” (Id.) 13 14 15 19 From there, Barrett stated that “past signposts point down some dark roads” and 20 briefly summarized a documentary he is writing about the 1976 Olympics, when an East 21 German team used performance-enhancing drugs. 22 narrative” of the film is “the failure of the press to speak up in the face of such obvious 23 corruption.” (Id.) According to Barrett, although the East German team was “delivering 24 performances that could not be explained by any rational observer,” very few 25 commentators voiced their suspicions that the athletes were aiding their performances 26 with drugs because “there was no proof.” (Id.) Barrett then claimed to have voiced 27 suspicions that Lance Armstrong was using drugs before there was proof of Armstrong’s 28 drug use, noting that this “continues to happen, in every sport, every time there’s a -5- Barrett stressed that a “driving 1 champion who stretches plausible achievement in ways that don’t quite pass the bullshit 2 test for anyone paying attention.” (Id.) 3 Barrett conceded that his suspicions about Hosszu could be wrong, and stated that 4 he hopes they are. (Id.) But then he provided a few more facts to support his suspicions. 5 In the 2012 London Olympics, Hosszu placed 4th in her signature event, the 400 IM. (Id. 6 at PDF 4.) Hosszu stated in an interview that she “gave up” during the event because her 7 spirit was shattered by the swimmer who won the event. (Id.) According to Barrett, 8 there was “outraged talk . . . some of it bordering on xenophobic” that the winner of the 9 event—Ye Shiwen of China—must have been using performance-enhancing drugs. (Id.) 10 After outlining these facts, Barrett questioned whether Hosszu might have suspected that 11 the swimmer who defeated her had been doping. He ended the article by sharing a 12 generalization he claimed to have learned while producing his documentary: “There is 13 one prerequisite for athletes who dope: 14 competition is doing it. That is the only thing that can validate crossing this line.” They must convince themselves that their 15 In light of Barrett’s concessions that he has “no proof,” that all he has is 16 “suspicions,” which may be “wrong,”3 and in light of his detailed explanation of how 17 non-contested facts gave rise to his suspicions, (id. at PDF 2-4), no “reasonable factfinder 18 could conclude that the statements imply a false assertion of objective fact.” Partington, 19 56 F.3d at 1153. Rather, it is clear to the reader “that the challenged statements represent 20 [Barrett’s] own interpretation of [the non-contested] facts” and that the reader is “free to 21 draw his own conclusions.” Id. at 1156-57. 22 Additionally, “the general context in which the statements were made negates the 23 impression that they imply a false assertion of fact.” Partington, 56 F.3d at 1154. First, 24 SWM’s version of the May 20th article clearly designated the content as “commentary” in 25 three separate places: (1) at the beginning of the article after the title, (2) at end of the 26 article, where SWM included a link to a press conference where Hosszu denied the 27 3 28 In the version of the May 20th article published on Barrett’s blog, he further stated, “[T]o any litigious minded folks out there – I realize I’m trafficking in currently unprovable conjecture.” (Doc. 27-1 at Ex. 2, PDF 8.) -6- 1 “commentary,” and (3) at the end of the text in an italicized notice to the reader that the 2 “commentary” contained opinion of the author and not SWM.4 (Doc. 27 at Ex. 1.) The 3 other version was posted on a blog, a form of media known for containing personal 4 opinion and commentary. Amaretto Ranch Breedables, LLC v. Ozimals, Inc., No. CV 10- 5 5696 CRB, 2013 WL 3460707, at *4 (N.D. Cal. July 9, 2013) (“[S]tatements made on a 6 personal blog are less likely to be viewed as statements of fact.”); Obsidian Fin. Grp., 7 LLC v. Cox, 812 F. Supp. 2d 1220, 1223 (D. Or. 2011), aff’d, 740 F.3d 1284 (9th Cir. 8 2014) (“[B]logs are a subspecies of online speech which inherently suggest that 9 statements made there are not likely provable assertions of fact.”); see also Partington, 10 56 F.3d at 1154 (“[S]tatements are protected in part because the format in which they are 11 found is ‘the type of article generally known to contain more opinionated writing than the 12 typical news report.’” (quoting Phantom Touring v. Affiliated Publ’ns, 953 F.2d 724, 729 13 (1st Cir. 1992))). Further, the May 20th article employed a highly informal writing style 14 more commonly associated with personal commentary than news reporting. 15 Underwager, 69 F.3d at 367 (“[S]ome of the language on the tape and at the seminar was 16 colorful, figurative rhetoric that reasonable minds would not take to be factual.”). Cf. 17 Nonetheless, this is not a case in which the author was penning satire, attempting 18 to be humorous, or otherwise creating a message that was not meant to be taken 19 seriously. Cf. Knievel, 393 F.3d at 1077-78. Despite the colorful language, Barrett 20 intended his audience to seriously consider the question he was raising – whether Hosszu 21 might be enhancing her performances with drugs. 22 There is one more factor for the Court to consider: “whether the statement in 23 question is susceptible of being proved true or false.” See Partington, 56 F.3d at 1153. 24 First, the Court must determine what the statement in question here is. Barrett never 25 stated in the article that Hosszu has ever used performance-enhancing drugs, and (as is 26 4 27 28 Hosszu alleges that at least one of these designations was added after SWM’s initial publication of the May 20th article. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 42.) However, even if the article had not been explicitly labeled “commentary,” the discussion above establishes that a reasonable reader would recognize that Barrett was expressing suspicions and conjecture, not assertions of fact. -7- 1 discussed above) his explicit caveats and his fair review of the facts on which his 2 suspicions are grounded negate the possibility that he was affirmatively asserting as a fact 3 that she has done so. He did not explicitly state—but he clearly implied—that he 4 believes that Hosszu’s performances should raise strong suspicions that she is using 5 performance-enhancing drugs, and that he believes commentators should speak out about 6 such suspicions. Such a “statement” is not an assertion of fact. 7 that is not susceptible of being proved true or false. 8 9 It is a personal opinion For all of the above reasons, Barrett’s statements in the May 20th article are protected by the First Amendment: 10 When, as here, an author writing about a controversial occurrence fairly 11 describes the general events involved and offers his personal perspective 12 about some of its ambiguities and disputed facts, his statements should 13 generally be protected by the First Amendment. Otherwise, there would be 14 no room for expressions of opinion by commentators, experts in a field, 15 figures closely involved in a public controversy, or others whose 16 perspectives might be of interest to the public. Instead, authors of every sort 17 would be forced to provide only dry, colorless descriptions of facts, bereft 18 of analysis or insight. There would be little difference between the editorial 19 page and the front page, between commentary and reporting, and the robust 20 debate among people with different viewpoints that is a vital part of our 21 democracy would surely be hampered. 22 Partington, 56 F.3d at 1154. 23 Hosszu’s claims based on the August 3, 2015 publication of Barrett’s article 24 Women Rule the Worlds allege that this second article republished the May 20th article’s 25 statements and reconfirmed Barrett’s continued belief in the sentiments expressed in the 26 May 20th article. (Doc. 1 at ¶ 44.) Because the May 20th article is protected by the First 27 Amendment, so too is Women Rule the Worlds. 28 Hosszu’s false light claims based on the May 20th and Women Rule the Worlds -8- 1 articles fail for the same reason her defamation claims fail: 2 protected by the First Amendment, regardless of the form of tort alleged.” Partington, 56 3 F.3d at 1160. Therefore, Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss regarding these two articles is 4 granted. “both statements are 5 Hosszu also based defamation and false light claims on two other articles, Doping: 6 How Not to Get Caught and Suspicious Minds and the Doping Rumor Mill. She alleges 7 that these articles “specifically argue that the absence of a positive drug test is not 8 tantamount to factual innocence of performance-enhancing drug abuse.” (Doc. 1 at ¶ 45.) 9 Hosszu fails to allege that this statement is false, and as such, the claims based on these 10 articles fail.5 11 Moreover, in Arizona, “defamatory statements must be published in such a 12 manner that they reasonably relate to specific individuals.” Hansen v. Stoll, 130 Ariz. 13 454, 458, 636 P.2d 1236, 1240 (Ct. App. 1981) (citing Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75 14 (1966)). “While the individual need not be named, the burden rests on the plaintiff to 15 [allege] that the publication was ‘of and concerning’ [her].” Id. 16 Hosszu alleged that these articles were “on the subject of performance-enhancing 17 drugs abuse, both of which are reasonably understood to refer to Hosszu.” (Compl. ¶ 45.) 18 However, while it is not necessary for Hosszu to allege that every reader could make the 19 connection between the article in question and herself, the “connection must be 20 reasonable under the circumstances.” Hansen, 130 Ariz. at 459, 636 P.2d at 1241 (citing 21 Restatement (Second) of Torts § 564 (1977)). These articles never mention Hosszu. 22 Instead, they discuss the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the swimming 23 community as a whole. (See Doc. 27 at Ex. 3–6.) “If the group [of defamed persons] is 24 so large, or the statements so indefinite, that the objects of the defamatory statements 25 cannot be readily ascertained, the statements are not actionable.” Hansen, 130 Ariz. at 26 458, 636 P.2d at 1240. Moreover, both parties stipulate that Barrett is a known 27 28 5 Because the claims fail on this ground, the Court will not analyze whether they are also protected under the First Amendment. -9- 1 commentator on the topic of performance-enhancing drug use in professional swimming. 2 (Compl.¶ 26; Doc. 26 at 4, 9). Thus, if anything, these articles propose a broad view on 3 an issue of public concern, rather than targeted assertions of fact which readers could 4 reasonably understand to be of and concerning Hosszu. 5 Thus, Hosszu’s defamation claims based on Doping: How Not to Get Caught and 6 Suspicious Minds and the Doping Rumor Mill fail. Hosszu’s false light claims based on 7 these articles fail for the same reason her defamation claims fail: a false light claim must 8 be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. Reynolds v. Reynolds, 231 Ariz. 313, 318, 294 P.3d 9 151, 156 (App. 2013). 10 11 III. Leave to Amend “[L]eave to amend should be granted unless the district court determines that the 12 pleading could not possibly be cured by the allegation of other facts.” 13 Safeguard Health Enter., Inc., 32 F. App’x 276, 278 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing Bly–Magee v. 14 Cal., 236 F.3d 1014, 1019 (9th Cir. 2001)). Here, the pleading cannot be cured by 15 alleging additional facts. 16 Levine v. CONCLUSION 17 IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 26) 18 is GRANTED. All claims are dismissed with prejudice. The Clerk of Court is directed 19 to enter judgment accordingly. 20 Dated this 12th day of August, 2016. 21 22 23 Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge 24 25 26 27 28 - 10 -

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