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Houlahan v. World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools

September 29, 2006

THOMAS G. HOULAHAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WORLD WIDE ASSOCIATION OF SPECIALTY PROGRAMS AND SCHOOLS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Henry H. Kennedy, Jr. United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

In this suit, Thomas Houlahan alleges that the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools ("WWASPS"); WWASPS President, Kenneth Kay ("Kay"); and Lance Landre, President and CEO of the C.S. Landre Foundation ("Landre") (collectively "Defendants") intentionally interfered with Houlahan's prospective economic advantage and committed libel against him. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, Defendants now move for partial summary judgment (Dkt. #32 / 43). Upon consideration of the motions, the opposition thereto, and the record of this case, the court concludes that Defendants' motions must be granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND

Since May 2003, Houlahan, a journalist writing principally for United Press International ("UPI"), has been investigating the teen behavior modification industry for a series of articles. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 20-21. In the course of his investigation, Houlahan focused on alleged improprieties within facilities operated by WWASPS, one of the largest operators in the field. Id. ¶¶ 22-24. As such, Houlahan's investigation came to the attention of WWASPS and Kay. Landre also learned of the investigation given the Foundation's involvement in "provid[ing] funding for lower income families wishing to enroll their children in WWASPS facilities." Id. ¶ 11.

In this suit, Houlahan alleges that, in response to his investigation, WWASPS, Kay, and Landre: (1) made defamatory statements about him and his work; (2) intentionally interfered with his prospective economic advantage by allegedly attempting to interfere with his relationship with his editor at UPI, Tobin Beck; and (3) engaged in abuse of process by filing a suit against Houlahan in a Utah federal district court alleging that Houlahan defamed WWASPS and tortiously interfered with WWASPS' contracts with its clients.*fn1 The court discusses each of these portions of Defendants' motions separately.

II. ANALYSIS

Defendants move for summary judgment on each of these claims and also seek to limit any potential recovery that Houlahan may receive to nominal damages.*fn2

A. Intentional Interference with Prospective Economic Advantage

Houlahan alleges that Defendants intentionally interfered with his prospective economic advantage through their communications with UPI and Tobin Beck, a senior editor at UPI and Houlahan's former boss. To establish a claim for intentional interference with prospective economic advantage under District of Columbia law, the evidence must show: (1) the existence of a valid business relationship or expectancy; (2) knowledge of the relationship or expectancy on the part of the interferer; (3) intentional interference inducing or causing a breach or termination of the relationship or expectancy; and (4) resultant damage. Bennett Enters., Inc. v. Domino's Pizza, Inc., 45 F.3d 493, 499 (D.C. Cir. 1995).

With regards to Landre, the court previously granted his motion to dismiss with respect to Houlahan's intentional interference claim because Houlahan failed to satisfy the cause of action's first element-the requirement that the plaintiff have a "valid business relationship or expectancy." Houlahan v. World Wide Ass'n of Specialty Programs and Sch., 2006 WL 785326, at *4 (D.D.C. 2006).Therefore, Landre's motion for partial summary judgment is moot as it pertains to Houlahan's intentional interference claim.

With respect to WWASPS and Kay, Houlahan's claim relies on the same factual basis as his claim against Landre-that WWASPS and Kay intentionally interfered with Houlahan's prospective economic advantage by negatively affecting his relationship with UPI. Although Houlahan's claim against WWASPS and Kay is worded slightly differently than his claim against Landre,*fn3 both claims pertain to Houlahan's work with UPI. Therefore, the court's previous determination that Houlahan did not have a "valid business relationship or expectancy" with UPI precludes any such claims predicated on this relationship. See id. As a result, the court grants Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to this issue.

B. Defamation

Next, Defendants seek summary judgment regarding Houlahan's claim that Defendants made defamatory statements about Houlahan in e-mails they sent to Beck and to WWASPS support group leaders. WWASPS'/Kay's Mot. for Partial Summ. J. ("Defs.' Mot.") at 1; Landre's Mot. for Partial Summ. J. ("Landre's Mot.") at 2-3. Houlahan's libel claim against Landre and Foundation is premised on Houlahan's allegation that Landre allegedly made defamatory statements about Houlahan in an e-mail he sent to Houlahan's editor, Beck. First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 108-12. As for WWASPS and Kay, Houlahan cites two communications as the basis for his claim: (1) an allegedly defamatory e-mail about Houlahan that Kay sent to WWASPS support group leaders on behalf of WWASPS, and (2) an allegedly defamatory press release purportedly approved by Kay and sent to WWASPS supporter group leaders. Id. ¶¶ 93-98.

To prevail on a defamation claim, a plaintiff must show: (i) a false and defamatory statement was written by the defendant about the plaintiff; (ii) the defendant published it without privilege to a third party; (iii) the defendant exhibited some fault in publishing the statement; and (iv) the statement is actionable as a matter of law or the publication has caused the plaintiff special harm." Messina v. Fontana, 260 F. Supp. 2d 173, 176-77 (D.D.C. 2003) (citing Beeton v. Dist. of Columbia, 779 A.2d 918, 924 (D.C. 2001). For public figures, the fault element is more stringent. Such plaintiffs must show, by clear and convincing evidence, that a defendant published the defamatory statements with "actual malice-that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 279-80 (1964) (internal quotations omitted); see also Curtis Publ'g Co. v. Betts, 388 U.S. 130, 164 (1967) (extending the New York Times actual malice standard for public officials to "public figures"); Tavoulareas v. Piro, 817 F.2d 762, 788 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (finding that actual malice turns on "whether there is clear and convincing evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubt as to the truth of [their] publication") (quoting St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731 (1968)). Here, the parties agree that Houlahan is a limited purpose public figure in his role as an investigative journalist.*fn4 Defs.' Mot. at 7; Pl.'s Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. for Partial Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 7.

Defendants' motion raises two discrete issues concerning the sustainability of Houlahan's defamation claims: (1) whether Houlahan has properly alleged that Defendants made false statements about him; and (2) whether Defendants acted with actual malice. Viewing the evidence presented in the summary-judgment record in a light most favorable to Houlahan, and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, as we must, the court finds that Defendants' statements ...


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