Vaughn v. The Baltimore Sun Co. et al
MEMORANDUM. Signed by Judge Ellen L. Hollander on 7/2/2015. (c/m 7/2/15 bas, Deputy Clerk)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
THE BALTIMORE SUN CO.,
BRANDI B., and
Civil Action No. ELH-15-1840
The above captioned action was filed on June 23, 2015 (ECF 1), together with a motion
to proceed in forma pauperis (ECF 2). The Motion shall be granted. For the reasons stated
below, however, the complaint must be dismissed.
Plaintiff Donta Vaughn, who is self-represented, is a prisoner committed to the custody
of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution
in Cumberland, Maryland.1 Vaughn has sued the Baltimore Sun, a newspaper, and the coauthors of an article that was published by the Baltimore Sun and which he contends was
In particular, Vaughn asserts that on February 1, 2014, defendants published a news story
stating that he was convicted of the murder of Eric Pendergrass. He claims this story was
According to Vaughn, he stood trial on charges of first degree murder, conspiracy,
kidnapping, and verbal extortion for the death of Eric Pendergrass.
The jury was given
instructions regarding felony-murder. Vaughn asserts that the “jury acquitted [him] of all instant
See Vaughn v. Warden, ELH-15-1358.
charges,” but found him guilty of “verbal extortion” and “used said convictions [for two counts
of extortion] as a predicate for [his] conviction of felony-murder.” ECF 1 at 2. Vaughn alleges
that as “this Honorable Court and students of law are aware . . . for a conviction of felonymurder, a defendant do[es] not have to be guilty of having any role in the murder . . . only the
felony.” ECF 1 at 3.
Vaughn alleges that defendants published the state’s theory of the case as if it were true,
portrayed Vaughn as the architect of the plan to kill Pendergrass, and erroneously reported that
Vaughn sent pictures via text message of “a tortured Pendergrass” to the victim’s girlfriend. Id.
at 3 – 4. Further, he claims that the story falsely portrayed the authors of the article as witnesses
to the trial when, in Vaughn’s view, if they had in fact attended the trial they would have known
that there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Id. at 4 – 5. As a result of the
publication, Vaughn asserts he has been erroneously portrayed as a depraved criminal. Id. As
relief, he seeks one-million dollars in damages. Id. at 14.
Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and “may not exercise jurisdiction absent
a statutory basis.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Servs., Inc., 545 U.S. 546, 552 (2005).
Indeed, federal courts “have an independent obligation to determine whether subject-matter
jurisdiction exists, even when no party challenges it.” Hertz Corp. v. Friend, 559 U.S. 77, 130 S.
Ct. 1181, 1193 (2010).
“A court is to presume . . . that a case lies outside its limited jurisdiction unless and until
jurisdiction has been shown to be proper.” United States v. Poole, 531 F.3d 263, 274 (4th Cir.
2008) (citing Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994)). Under the “wellpleaded complaint” rule, the facts showing the existence of subject matter jurisdiction “must be
affirmatively alleged in the complaint.” Pinkley, Inc. v. City of Frederick, 191 F.3d 394, 399 (4th
Cir.1999) (citing McNutt v. Gen'l Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178 (1936)). Moreover,
the “burden of establishing subject matter jurisdiction is on ... the party asserting jurisdiction.”
Robb Evans & Assocs., LLC v. Holibaugh, 609 F.3d 359, 362 (4th Cir. 2010); accord Hertz, 130
S. Ct. at 1194; McBurney v. Cuccinelli, 616 F.3d 393, 408 (4th Cir. 2010).
Under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, a federal court may obtain subject matter jurisdiction in a case
involving a federal question. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1), federal district courts may obtain
subject matter jurisdiction based on diversity, i.e., in “civil actions where the matter in
controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs, and is between
… citizens of different States.” With exceptions not applicable here, diversity jurisdiction under
§ 1332 “requires complete diversity among parties, meaning that the citizenship of every plaintiff
must be different from the citizenship of every defendant.” Cent. W. Va. Energy Co. v. Mountain
State Carbon, LLC, 636 F.3d 101, 103 (4th Cir. 2011).
A claim for defamation is not a federal cause of action and the named defendants are not
state actors. But, a state law cause of action, such as the tort of defamation, may be brought in
this court on the basis of diversity of citizenship. As noted, diversity jurisdiction applies “where
the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs,
and is between ... citizens of different States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1). In the instant case, all
parties reside in Maryland and the alleged wrongful acts occurred in Maryland. Accordingly,
diversity jurisdiction is not established in this case. It follows that this Court lacks subject matter
jurisdiction and thus it may not address the merits of the claims.
By a separate Order which follows, the Complaint shall be dismissed, without prejudice.
July 2, 2015
Ellen L. Hollander
United States District Judge
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