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Shipkovitz v. Washington Post Co.

August 19, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Royce C. Lamberth Chief Judge


Now before the Court comes four pending motions in this case: (1) defendants Mary Curtius and Louise DiMatteo's (collectively, "Arlington Defendants") motion [3] to dismiss or transfer venue; (2) plaintiff's motion [27] for reconsideration of the Court's Order [26] dated January 9, 2008 and "for leave to supplement and second supplement to [plaintiff's response to Arlington Defendants' motion to dismiss or transfer]," and for extension of time to respond to Arlington Defendants' motion"; (3) plaintiff's unopposed motion [32] for leave to file surreply; and, (4) Washington Post Company, WP Company, LLC, and Brigid Schulte's (collectively, "WP Defendants") motion [15] for summary judgment.

Upon full consideration of these motions, the opposition and reply briefs, the entire record herein, and applicable law, the Court finds, for the reasons set forth below, that plaintiff's complaint as to Arlington Defendants will be dismissed without prejudice, and that Arlington Defendants' motion [3] will be DENIED as moot. Further, plaintiff's motion [27] for reconsideration and other relief will be DENIED and his motion [32] for leave to file surreply will be GRANTED. WP Defendants' motion [15] for summary judgment will be GRANTED.


Plaintiff Samuel Shipkovitz was once a resident of a condominium located at 1200 Crystal Drive in Arlington, Virginia. See Crossan v. County of Arlington Manager, No. 05-cv-1219, 2006 WL 2088743, at *1 (E.D. Va. June 22, 2006). The owner of the condo, Stephen Crossan, agreed that plaintiff could reside at the residence while Mr. Crossan was committed to the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute. Id. Upon Mr. Crossan's 2004 conditional release, plaintiff and Mr. Crossan co-resided at the condo until October 20, 2005. Id. On that date, Arlington County Deputy Fire Marshal Keith Grierson and other county officials arrived at the condo, were given permission to inspect the premises, determined that plaintiff's "massive accumulation of personal property" was a fire hazard, and declared the condo uninhabitable.*fn1 Id. Deputy Fire Marshal Grierson posted appropriate evacuation and fire hazard notices and notified Mr. Crossan that he would have to vacate the condo until the violations were remedied. Id. When plaintiff became aware of these events, county officials permitted him several opportunities to remove personal property in an effort to render the condo habitable. Id. at *2. After plaintiff repeatedly failed to remove his property, Mr. Crossan instructed that plaintiff would no longer be permitted to enter the premises. Id. In February 2006, Mr. Crossan contracted to have plaintiff's excess property removed from the condo, thereby making the premises habitable. Id.

At some point, plaintiff contacted the Washington Post to see if it would be interested in publishing an article about his legal efforts to challenge the county's actions. (See Mot. Summ. J. at 3; Opp. at 1.) On June 18, 2006 and July 27, 2006, the Washington Post published articles about Mr. Shipkovitz's accumulation of property, the actions of what is known as the Arlington hoarding task force, and the dismissal of Eastern District of Virginia litigation challenging the task force's actions; defendant reporter Brigid Schulte wrote both articles. (See Fighting to Remain Engulfed in Junk: As Task Forces Move in, Hoarders Strike Back in Court, Ex. A to Compl.; Hoarder's Eviction Didn't Violate Rights, Judge Says, Ex. D to Compl.) Based on publication of these articles, plaintiff alleges that WP Defendants are liable for libel and invasion of privacy. (See Compl. ¶¶ 17--28.) Specifically, plaintiff objects to the first article's purportedly false statements such as: "he works sporadically and has had long periods of unemployment"; "[h]e admits that his place was a mess"; "he slept on top of his stuff on the floor"; "there were boxes in the bathtub"; "there was "rubbish, debris, paper, . . . [and] bags . . ." crammed "from floor to ceiling"; "the kitchen was unusable"; researchers are studying hoarding's "association with mental illness, brain dysfunction, and obsessive-compulsive disorders"; and, "Shipkovitz's . . . court filings are typed single-spaced or handwritten on 100 percent recycled paper." (Id. ¶¶ 17, 25.) The second article contained allegedly libelous statements such as: "[e]very count [of plaintiff's Eastern District of Virginia lawsuit] was found to be without merit," and there was a "massive amount of junk in the condo-. . . bags, trash . . . ." (Id. ¶ 20.) Plaintiff also considers the label "hoarder" to be libelous. (Id. ¶ 19.) Specific to plaintiff's invasion of privacy claim, he asserts that the Washington Post published an "illegally taken photograph." (Id. ¶ 27.)

WP Defendants contend that plaintiff's suit is not meritorious because the articles were true and also fell within the common law privilege to report on official acts and proceedings because the articles were based on actions of Arlington County officials and court documents.


A. Arlington Defendants' Motion to Dismiss or Transfer Venue

While plaintiff did not properly file a notice of dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1), plaintiff's response [28] to Arlington Defendants'*fn2 motion [3] to dismiss or transfer venue makes clear that he intended to file such a notice; Arlington Defendants' reply brief [30] indicates that they do not oppose dismissal without prejudice. Accordingly, the Court will order dismissal of Arlington Defendants from this suit and deny their motion to dismiss or transfer venue as moot.

B. Plaintiff's Motion for Reconsideration and for Other Relief

In consideration of plaintiff's motion [27] for reconsideration, plaintiff presents nothing new that causes the Court to question its prior ruling. And, to the extent that plaintiff's motion requests relief against Arlington Defendants, the motion is moot given that they will be dismissed from this case.

C. WP Defendants' Motion for ...

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