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Moreira-Brown v. Las Vegas Review Journal, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 18, 2017

Herbert Moreira-Brown, Plaintiff
v.
Las Vegas Review Journal, Inc. et al, Defendants

          ORDER DISMISSING ALL CLAIMS [ECF NO. 7, 34, 73]

          Jennifer A. Dorsey United States District Judge.

         Maryland attorney April Ademiluyi sued Nevada attorney David Phillips in Maryland, alleging that Phillips and New York attorney Herbert Moreira-Brown drugged and sexually assaulted her and an unnamed colleague at a conference in Florida.[1] After Phillips successfully had the case transferred to Nevada, journalist Carri Geer Thevenot caught wind of it and reported on the allegations in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (LVRJ).[2] Claiming that the allegations against him in Ademiluyi's suit are false and that Thevenot's article further defamed him and caused him emotional distress, Moreira-Brown filed this action against Ademiluyi, Thevenot, and the LVRJ for defamation and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.[3]

         All defendants move to dismiss.[4] Because I find that this court lacks personal jurisdiction over Ademiluyi, and I conclude that Moreira-Brown's claims against Thevenot and the LVRJ (the Media Defendants) are barred by Nevada's anti-SLAPP laws, I grant the motions to dismiss in part, dismiss all claims, and close this case.

         Discussion

         A. April Ademiluyi's Motion to Dismiss

         Ademiluyi offers two arguments for dismissal: (1) this court lacks personal jurisdiction over her and (2) the communications on which Moreira-Brown's claims are based are privileged and not actionable.[5] Because I find that this court lacks personal jurisdiction over Ademiluyi, I grant the motion on that basis and do not reach her remaining arguments.

         The due-process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits a court's power to bind a nonresident defendant to a judgment in the state in which it sits.[6] As the United States Supreme Court explained in the pathmaking International Shoe opinion, "[a]lthough a non resident's physical presence within the territorial jurisdiction of the court is not required" for the exercise of personal jurisdiction, "the nonresident generally must have 'certain minimum contacts such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.'"[7]

         "There are two forms of personal jurisdiction that a forum state may exercise over a nonresident defendant-general jurisdiction and specific jurisdiction."[8] Moreira-Brown does not contend that Ademiluyi is subject to the general jurisdiction of this court based on systematic contacts. His arguments suggest specific jurisdiction: he argues that "[t]he instant action arises directly out of [Ademiluyi's] acts in [Nevada], both by virtue of the suit against Phillips, in which [Moreira-Brown] is mentioned, and of course, going beyond that by defaming [him] in a Las Vegas newspaper article."[9]

         Specific jurisdiction depends on an "activity or an occurrence that takes place in [or is purposely directed at] the forum State and is therefore subject to the State's regulation."[10] "In contrast to general, all-purpose jurisdiction, specific jurisdiction is confined to adjudication of 'issues deriving from, or connected with, the very controversy that establishes jurisdiction.'"[11] In the Ninth Circuit, we apply the three-prong test from Schwarzenegger v. Fred Martin Motor Company for analyzing a claim of specific jurisdiction:

(1) The non-resident defendant must purposefully direct [her] activities or consummate some transaction with the forum or resident thereof; or perform some act by which [s]he purposefully avails [her]self of the privilege of conducting activities in the forum, thereby invoking the benefits and protections of its laws;
(2) the claim must be one which arises out of or relates to the defendant's forum-related activities; and
(3) the exercise of jurisdiction must comport with fair play and substantial justice, i.e. it must be reasonable.[12]

         "The plaintiff bears the burden of satisfying the first two prongs of the test. If [he] fails to satisfy either of these prongs, personal jurisdiction is not established in the forum state."[13] When a district court acts on a defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction without holding a hearing, "the plaintiff need only make a prima facie showing of jurisdictional facts to withstand" the challenge.[14] Because I find that an evidentiary hearing would not change the outcome of this motion, my inquiry focuses on whether Moreira-Brown has made a prima facie showing that the court has jurisdiction over Ademiluyi, and I accept all uncontroverted facts as true.[15]

         1. Ademiluyi did not waive her personal-jurisdiction arguments by accepting service.

         As his first line of defense against Ademiluyi's personal-jurisdiction challenge, Moreira- Brown notes that "Ademiluyi executed a waiver of service" and cites a vacated district court decision for the proposition that "a waiver of service establishes personal jurisdiction over" the waiving defendant.[16] This principle-let alone this quote-appears nowhere in the case that Moreira-Brown cites for this proposition. Plus, it's just wrong. FRCP 4(d)(5) expressly states that "[w]aiving service of a summons does not waive any objection to personal jurisdiction or to venue."[17] So Ademiluyi did not lose her personal-jurisdiction objection by waiving service of process.

         2. Ademiluyi did not waive her jurisdictional challenge by maintaining a lawsuit in this forum against Phillips.

         Moreira-Brown next meets Ademiluyi's jurisdictional challenge by pointing to two acts that she had to know "were acts undertaken in this forum with predictable consequences."[18] The first act is Ademiluyi's prosecution of her lawsuit against Phillips. "If the Defendant resorts to the Courts of the forum state as plaintiff, " he reasons, "it must be subject to the jurisdiction of the Federal Court as defendant in the present case."[19] But I cannot conclude that Ademiluyi's maintenance of her lawsuit against Phillips in this forum subjects her to Moreira-Brown's suit here. Although "there is nothing unfair, or violative of due process, about requiring a party that has affirmatively sought the aid of our courts with regard to a particular transaction to submit to jurisdiction in the same forum as a defendant with regard to the same transaction with the same party, "[20] this rule does not apply here.

         First, the "same party" element is lacking because Ademiluyi did not sue Moreira-Brown, just Phillips. But more importantly, Ademiluyi did not seek the affirmative aid of this forum. Ademiluyi filed her lawsuit against Phillips in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.[21] On Phillips's motion to dismiss, the court transferred the case to this district because Phillips lived in Nevada.[22] Ademiluyi took affirmative action in Nevada only after that suit was transferred from her chosen forum-Maryland. As the Ninth Circuit recognized in Dow Chemical Company v. Calderon, [23] finding that participation in another forum-based lawsuit waives a personal-jurisdiction objection requires "that the party objecting to jurisdiction . . . was also affirmatively availing itself of the relevant forum."[24]

         In Calderon, the objectors had defended other cases on their merits, "[b]ut that choice was made only after they were haled into the district court. . ., "[25] So the court refused to find waiver, reasoning, "[w]ithout an independent affirmative decision to seek relief in our courts, there can be no imputation of a conscious decision to settle all aspects of a dispute here."[26] Like the defendants in Calderon, Ademiluyi did not make "a conscious decision to settle all aspects" of this dispute in Nevada. So I do not find that she waived her personal-jurisdiction challenge in this case by following her suit against Phillips to this forum after the Maryland court transferred it here.[27]

         3. Moreira-Brown has not shown that his claim against Ademiluyi arises out of her forum-related activities.

         The second act that Moreira-Brown claims caused Ademiluyi to submit to the personal jurisdiction of the Nevada courts is that "she transacted business" by "speaking to a reporter Nevada."[28] But Moreira-Brown has not shown that this contact was jurisdictionally meaningful.

         A review of the article reveals that all of Ademiluyi's allegations against him and Phillips were plucked from the lawsuit or police report, not based on statements that Ademiluyi made to the reporter.[29] The only information that may have come directly from Ademiluyi to the reporter is found in the paragraph that reads:

Ademiluyi has had a Maryland law license since 2008. She said she is self-employed and works part time as outside counsel for a gaming company based in Canada. The Las Vegas Review-Journal typically does not name sexual assault victims, but Ademiluyi has agreed to be identified in this article.[30]

         "For a State to exercise jurisdiction consistent with due process, the defendant's suit-related conduct must create a substantial connection with the forum State."[31] Even if I presume that there was some contact (telephonic, e-mail, etc.) by which Ademiluyi conveyed this information and consent to the LVRJ reporter, this information itself does not give rise to Moreira-Brown's claims, which arise from the allegations in the complaint and police report.

         Evaluating Ademiluyi's relationship with Nevada yields an insufficient basis for personal jurisdiction. Ademiluyi is a Maryland resident, who sued in Maryland a lawyer whom she met at a conference in Florida, over events that she alleges occurred in Florida. But for the fact that the defendant lawyer-Phillips-happened to be a Nevada resident and successfully moved the Maryland court to transfer Ademiluyi's lawsuit to Nevada, Ademiluyi would have had no connection to Nevada. Phillips is also the only meaningful bridge connecting Moreira-Brown to Nevada.

         The nature of the claims against Ademiluyi further illustrates the lack of a forum connection. Moreira-Brown alleges that he "has suffered and continues to suffer severe injury to his reputation, his professional standing as a member of the bar, has suffered and continues to suffer severe emotional distress affecting personal and familial relationships, "[32] but none of these injuries are felt in Nevada or caused by conduct of Ademiluyi in Nevada. Indeed, in decrying the Media Defendants' choice to reference him in an LVRJ article primarily focused on Phillips's troubles, Moreira-Brown inadvertently makes this point. He stresses that he has "never practiced law in the state of Nevada, " has never "worked professionally with David Phillips, " is "unknown in the state of Nevada, " and was not "named as a defendant in any lawsuit brought by Ademiluyi."[33] And although "Ademiluyi alleges . . . that Jane Doe was sexually assaulted by" him, he swears that "Jane Doe has never confirmed [that] to" anyone in Nevada.[34] And he attests that "the Nevada public can have no interest in Herbert Moreira-Brown, an out of state attorney who simply attended a conference with Phillips and the defendants Ademiluyi and Jane Doe."[35]

         The Supreme Court's recent specific-jurisdiction jurisprudence demonstrates that Ademiluyi's challenged conduct does not sufficiently connect her to Nevada. In Walden v. Fiore, the High Court stressed that "the defendant's conduct. . . must form the necessary connection with the forum State"[36] and relied on Calder v. Jones to illustrate the type of contacts that are jurisdictionally relevant. In Calder, the Court found California to be "the focal point" of an allegedly libelous news story about actress Shirley Jones. Though the story originated from the National Enquirer in Florida, the Court found that "[i]t impugned the professionalism of an entertainer whose television career was centered in California, " the "article was drawn from California sources, and the brunt of the harm, in terms of both [Jones's] emotional distress and the injury to her professional reputation, was suffered in California."[37]

         This case presents the converse of Calder. Although Moreira-Brown's lawsuit was triggered by an LVRJ article written in Nevada, "the focal point" of the story and the harm, as far as Moreira-Brown and this lawsuit are concerned, is elsewhere. Moreira-Brown is an attorney in, and resident of, New York;[38] the article-to the extent it relates to Moreira-Brown-is drawn from sources in Maryland, Florida, and New York; and the alleged injury to his reputation and his familial relationships would be suffered in New York. In short, the effects of the conduct that forms the basis for Moreira-Brown's suit against Ademiluyi are felt in New York, not Nevada.[39]

         In sum, Moreira-Brown has not made a prima facie case that Ademiluyi's suit-related conduct has a substantial connection with this forum. I thus grant Ademiluyi's motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and dismiss the claims against her on this basis.

         B. Moreira-Brown's suit against the Media Defendants must be dismissed under Nevada's anti-SLAPP suit laws.

         "SLAPP lawsuits abuse the judicial process by chilling, intimidating, and punishing individuals for their involvement in public affairs."[40] To curb these abusive lawsuits, Nevada's legislature has adopted anti-SLAPP laws that immunize protected speakers from suit. Codified at NRS 41.660 et seq., Nevada's anti-SLAPP statutes permit a defendant to bring a special motion to dismiss an action "brought against a person based upon a good faith communication in furtherance of the right... to free speech in direct connection with an issue of public concern."[41]This procedural mechanism "filters unmeritorious claims in an effort to protect citizens from costly retaliatory lawsuits arising from their right to free speech under both the Nevada and Federal Constitutions."[42]

         The parties' burdens when litigating a special motion under Nevada's anti-SLAPP statute were clarified by the Nevada Supreme Court this summer in Delucchi v. Songer.[43]The moving party must first establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the claim challenges a good-faith "communication in furtherance of the right... to free speech in direct connection with an issue of public concern."[44] The burden then shifts to the plaintiff to establish "by clear and convincing evidence a probability of prevailing on the claim."[45] "If the district court determines that the plaintiff has shown by clear and convincing evidence a likelihood of succeeding on the merits, the determination on the special motion has no effect on the remainder of the proceedings."[46] But if the court grants the special motion to dismiss, "the dismissal operates as an adjudication upon the merits."[47]

         1. Moreira-Brown's claims challenge a good-faith communication in furtherance of the right to free speech in direct connection with an issue of public concern.

         Each of Moreira-Brown's claims against the Media Defendants challenges speech protected by Nevada's anti-SLAPP statutes. The introduction of his complaint captures the essence of all claims: "This is an action for money damages arising from . . . the publication of a false, libelous and defamatory Article about the Plaintiff on August 24, 2014."[48] The article was written by journalist Thevenot and published in the LVRJ, Southern Nevada's main newspaper.[49]The article that sits at the heart of each of Moreira-Brown's claims is undoubtedly the type of classic journalism subject to First Amendment free-speech protections.[50]

         But this court need not "wrestle with difficult questions of constitutional law" to determine whether Moreira-Brown's claims are barred by the anti-SLAPP laws.[51] As the Delucchi court held, "a defendant's conduct constitutes 'good faith communication in furtherance of the right... to free speech in direct connection with an issue of public concern' if it falls within one of the four categories enumerated in NRS 41.637 and 'is truthful or is made without knowledge of its falsehood.'"[52] The Media Defendants' conduct satisfies this standard.

         a. The article is a written statement in direct connection with an issue under consideration by a judicial body.

         The third category of public concerns enumerated in NRS 41.637 is a "[w]ritten or oral statement made in direct connection with an issue under consideration by a . . . judicial body, or any other official proceeding authorized by law."[53] The article falls squarely into this category. The headline of the article is "Lawyer faces charges from Nevada's State Bar, rape allegation" and the main subject of the article is "veteran Las Vegas lawyer David Phillips, " who was the subject of seven grievances filed with the State Bar of Nevada and Ademiluyi's "unrelated . . . federal lawsuit accusing Phillips of raping her at a legal conference in 2012."[54] Moreira-Brown argues that the article's mentioning of him is not "an issue of public interest" because he "is so tangential and removed from the issue of grievance charges against Phillips as to fail the test of having a direct connection to an issue of public interest" and, at a minimum, the reporter's recounting that he "faced rape allegations in the past[, ] which derailed a Congressional bid" "had no direct or even indirect connection" to Ademiluyi's suit.[55] There are two problems with Moreira-Brown's characterization: (1) Ademiluyi's complaint contains sexual-assault allegations against him, too; and (2) he views "an issue of public interest" far more narrowly than the law does.

         Although Ademiluyi named Phillips as the only defendant in her lawsuit, her complaint contains the allegations that Moreira-Brown "administered a date rape drug" in her beverage and that of Jane Doe "without their knowledge and consent" and that he then "engaged in sexual intercourse with Ms. Doe."[56] She describes in her complaint the scene of the 2012 National Bar Association conference at which she claims that "Mr. Phillips and Mr. Moreira-Brown conspired to and did take" her "from the party to Mr. Phillips['s] hotel room" where he "had sexual intercourse with her while she was under the influence of the date rape drug."[57] She alleges that "Ms. Doe also reported that she lost memory but recalls Hebert [sic] Moreira Brown, Esq. taking her to his room, feeling [him] on top of her and telling him 'no, stop, ' and woke up the next morning and could feel that he had sexual intercourse with her."[58] Whether it is true-as Moreira-Brown opines-that "[t]he Nevada public can have no public interest in the mentioning of a New York attorney in a suit against a Nevada attorney, " Thevenot's reporting of the allegations against him qualify as "an issue of public concern" under the plain language of the statute: they are written statements "made in direct connection with an issue under consideration by a . . . judicial body. . . ."[59] And it is the statutory definition, not a colloquial understanding of it, that controls.[60]

         Moreira-Brown contends that Thevenot's mentioning of his failed Congressional bid- a part of his history that does not appear in Ademiluyi's complaint-takes her article outside of the statute's protection. This argument requires the court to construe the statute too narrowly. NRS 41.637(3) protects any written "statement made in direct connection with an issue under consideration" in Ademiluyi's lawsuit.[61] The article's statement that Moreira-Brown "has faced rape allegations in the past" and that his 1998 Congressional campaign "was derailed after a different woman accused him of rape, though a grand jury later declined to indict him" is directly related to "an issue under consideration" in Ademiluyi's suit. When describing in the complaint the difficulties she had getting law enforcement to take action on her allegations, Ademiluyi suggests that police should have run a background check and that it would have revealed that Moreira-Brown "had been accused of sexual assault in the past" and that he "had a history of being arrested for . . . violent crimes."[62] Even if the derailing of his Congressional bid is not specifically recounted in the complaint, this representation in the article easily qualifies as a statement made "in direct connection with" those past accusations of sexual assault.

         b. The statements were truthful or without knowledge of their falsehood.

         The Media Defendants have also established that the statements in the article were truthful or not made with knowledge of their falsehood. Moreira-Brown stresses that he denies Ademiluyi's allegations, and he notes that Jane Doe has been unwilling to confirm her allegations, and that there has not even been "a semblance of police investigation." But those points attack the allegations in the complaint, not the statements in the article, on which NRS 41.637(3) focuses and so must I. And a careful, side-by-side comparison of Ademiluyi's complaint and Thevenot's article reveals no misrepresentations of the allegations in that lawsuit.[63] The author noted each time she was summarizing allegations from the complaint, peppering the article with "The lawsuit said, " "the lawsuit alleges, " and "In court papers"[64] qualifiers. The other references in the article that are not identified as sourcing from Ademiluyi's complaint were summaries of statements Moreira-Brown provided during a phone interview (none of which he contends are misconstrued) and the report that Moreira-Brown's Congressional bid was derailed after a different woman accused him of rape (which he also does not deny).[65]

         Instead Moreira-Brown argues that the article "belies both the good faith and lack of knowledge of falsity prerequisites" because it "fails to mention the nature of the complaint or" its 200 pages of exhibits.[66] The "nature" he's suggesting is that the "complaint is so rambling and incoherent as to warrant the suggestion that the allegations may be the product of mental illness rather than its source."[67] Having seen many a rambling complaint, I would not put Ademiluyi's in that category. And Moreira-Brown's opinion that the lawsuit is "the product of mental illness" is just that-his opinion. Thevenot's failure to characterize the lawsuit or its proponent the way Moreira-Brown perceives them does not render the article about the lawsuit untruthful or knowingly false. The story even includes Moreira-Brown's viewpoint: Thevenot reports that he "was unaware of any accusations against him" and that he insists that he "didn't have sex with anyone on that trip, " "has never possessed a date rape drug and doesn't know anyone by the true name for Jane Doe. . . ."[68]

         Finally, Moreira-Brown suggests that Thevenot's use of the word "rape" shows a lack of good faith because that word does not appear in the complaint "in the context of him.[69] But the second paragraph of the complaint contains both his name and the word "rape":

During an evening party . . . Mr. Phillips and Herbert Moreira-Brown, Esq. administered a date rape drug into the beverages of Ms. Ademiluyi and Ms. Jane Doe without their knowledge and consent and Mr. Moreira Brown engaged in sexual intercourse with Ms. Doe and Mr. Phillips engaged in sexual intercourse with Ms. Ademiluyi.[70]

         And there is a handful of other allegations that can fairly be summarized as "rape" allegations, like the allegation in paragraph 31 that Ms. Doe "reported that she lost memory" but remembers "Moreira Brown, Esq. taking her to his room, feeling Mr. Moreira Brown on top of her and telling him 'no, stop, ' and woke up the next morning and could feel that he had sexual intercourse with her. When she awoke, Mr. Moreira-Brown told her, 'you better not tell anybody about this.'"[71]

         In sum, the Media Defendants have carried their burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that Moreira-Brown's claims challenge a good-faith "communication in furtherance of the right... to free speech in direct connection with an issue of public concern."[72] So, the burden shifts to Moreira-Brown to establish "by clear and convincing evidence a probability of prevailing on" his claims.[73]

         2. Moreira-Brown has not shown his probability of success on his defamation claim by clear and convincing evidence.

         Moreira-Brown's first claim for relief is defamation. "Defamation is a publication of a false statement of fact."[74] "The general elements of a defamation claim require a plaintiff to prove: '(1) a false and defamatory statement by a defendant concerning the plaintiff; (2) an unprivileged publication to a third person; (3) fault, amounting to at least negligence; and (4) actual or presumed damages.'"[75]

         In espousing the merits of his defamation claim, Moreira-Brown focuses on the defamatory part, stressing that the rape allegations are "so inflammatory, prejudicial and defamatory, per se, " not "fair, accurate and impartial."[76] But he has not demonstrated that the Media Defendants made any false statements. To be sure, Moreira-Brown vehemently denies the accusations in Ademiluyi's complaint. But the article does not level the rape-drug and sexual-assault accusations against Moreira-Brown; it summarizes those ...


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