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Smith v. Clinton

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 26, 2017

PATRICIA SMITH, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          AMY BERMAN JACKSON United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs Patricia Smith and Charles Woods have brought this action against the former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton (“Secretary Clinton”), alleging that Secretary Clinton's use of a private email server caused the death of their sons Sean Smith and Tyrone Woods. Plaintiffs' theory is that Secretary Clinton's use of the private email account when she was serving as Secretary of State exposed confidential information about plaintiffs' relatives to the terrorists who ultimately took their lives in Benghazi, Libya in September of 2012. See Compl. [Dkt. # 1] ¶¶ 26-28, 44-47. Plaintiffs also allege that Secretary Clinton defamed them and placed them in a false light when, as a candidate for the office of President of the United States, she disputed their accounts of conversations that she had with them about the circumstances that led to attack in Benghazi. Id. ¶¶ 33-42. Finally, plaintiffs allege that Secretary Clinton's conduct - both as Secretary of State and later on the campaign trail - intentionally and negligently caused them to suffer emotional distress. Id. ¶¶ 50-56.

         The United States has moved to substitute itself as the defendant for any actions that Secretary Clinton took as Secretary of State. In that capacity, it moves to dismiss the claims for wrongful death (Count I) and negligence (Count IV) in their entirety, along with those portions of the claims for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress (Counts V and VI, respectively) that are premised on actions Secretary Clinton took as Secretary of State.

         The law allows the United States to substitute itself as the defendant where a lawsuit challenges acts taken by a government official who was acting in the scope of his or her employment at the time of the alleged torts. To resolve the question of whether Secretary Clinton was acting in the scope of her employment, the relevant inquiry is not whether her use of the private email server was lawful or unlawful. Instead, the only issue to be resolved is whether the Secretary's communication with State Department personnel concerning State Department business through that means fell within the scope of Secretary Clinton's employment. Because the Court finds that Secretary Clinton was acting in the scope of her employment when she transmitted the emails that are alleged to give rise to her liability, the motion to substitute will be granted. And because plaintiffs failed to raise their claims with the State Department before bringing suit as is legally required, the government's motion to dismiss the counts against the United States will be granted.

         In addition, Secretary Clinton has moved to dismiss the defamation and false light claims (Counts II and III), as well as the intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress claims insofar as they are premised on actions she took after she left office (Count V and VI). Plaintiffs allege that Secretary Clinton lied to them when she allegedly told them that it was a YouTube video that prompted the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. See Compl. ¶ 24. They further claim that when Secretary Clinton - then candidate Clinton - was subsequently asked about plaintiffs' allegation that she had lied, she defamed plaintiffs or put them in a false light when she disputed their account of their conversation with her. See Id. ¶ 23. But because plaintiffs have not stated a claim for defamation or false light, or for intentional infliction of emotional distress, Secretary Clinton's personal motion to dismiss will be granted as well.

         The untimely death of plaintiffs' sons is tragic, and the Court does not mean to minimize the unspeakable loss that plaintiffs have suffered in any way. But when one applies the appropriate legal standards, it is clear that plaintiffs have not alleged sufficient facts to rebut the presumption that Secretary Clinton was acting in her official capacity when she used her private email server to communicate with State Department personnel about State Department business, and that they have not stated claims that Secretary Clinton defamed them, put them in a false light, or intentionally inflicted emotional distress. For those reasons, the case will be dismissed. Nothing about this decision should be construed as making any determination or expressing any opinion about the propriety of the use of the private email server or the content or accuracy of the statements made by the Secretary to the family members or to anyone else in the days following the Benghazi attack.

         BACKGROUND

         For purposes of this motion, the Court must assume the facts alleged by the plaintiffs to be true.

         From 2009 to 2013, Secretary Clinton served as the United States Secretary of State. Compl. ¶ 8. During her tenure - as the world has come to know - she “utilized a private e-mail server to conduct official government business.” Id. ¶ 9. Plaintiffs allege that Secretary Clinton used the private server to send and receive “thousands of e-mails regarding matters of national security, including information that has been categorized as ‘top secret, ' ‘secret, ' and ‘confidential.'” Id.

         Plaintiffs specifically allege that Secretary Clinton used her private e-mail server to “send and receive information about the location of Ambassador Christopher Stevens . . . and other government operations in Benghazi, Libya. Compl. ¶ 15.[1] From there, they posit that the email server was hacked by a number of foreign countries, that terrorists thereby obtained the e-mails, and that the terrorists used them to “plan, orchestrate, and carry out the horrific and devastating attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012, resulting in the death of four Americans, including Sean Smith and Tyrone Woods.” Id. ¶¶ 15-16.[2]

         According to plaintiffs, on the day of the attack, and in the days that followed, Secretary Clinton attempted to blame an anti-Muslim YouTube video for inciting the violence. Compl. ¶ 18. In particular, on September 12, 2012, when Secretary Clinton gave public remarks about the attack, she said: “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our Embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet.” Id. And the complaint states that, two days after the attack, when Secretary Clinton met with the families of the four Americans who were killed, she “lied to Plaintiffs and told Plaintiffs that the Benghazi attack was the result of the anti-Muslim YouTube video that had been posted online, ” and she promised the families that the “creator of the video would be arrested.” Id. ¶ 19. According to the complaint, plaintiff Woods “contemporaneously recorded this September 14, 2012 interaction with [Secretary] Clinton by writing in his diary . . . ‘I gave Hillary a hug and shook her hand, and she said we are going to have the film maker arrested who was responsible for the death of my son.'” Id. ¶ 20.

         The narrative in the complaint then jumps forward more than three years, and it recounts various statements that Secretary Clinton made during the Presidential election season in late 2015 and early 2016. Secretary Clinton has long maintained that she never told plaintiffs that the Benghazi attack was caused by the YouTube video; plaintiffs allege that when she advanced those denials, Secretary Clinton lied about their September 2012 interaction and thereby defamed them.

         Paragraph 23 of the complaint recounts four specific instances of alleged defamation:

December 6, 2015 interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC:
Stephanopoulos asked Clinton, “[d]id you tell them it was about the film?” Compl. ¶ 23(a). Secretary Clinton replied:
No. You know, look I understand the continuing grief at the loss that parents experienced with the loss of these four brave Americans. And I did testify, as you know, for 11 hours. And I answered all of these questions. Now, I can't -I can't help it the people think there has to be something else there. I said very clearly there had been a terrorist group that had taken responsibility on Facebook between the time that, I - you know, when I talked to my daughter, that was the latest information; we were giving it credibility. And then we learned the next day it wasn't true. In fact, they retracted it. This was a fast-moving series of events in the fog of war and I think most Americans understand that.

Id.

         • December 30, 2015 meeting with the Conway Daily Sun Editorial Board: The complaint alleges that Conway Daily Sun columnist Tom McLaughlin brought up the ABC interview and asked: “Somebody is lying. Who is it?” Compl. ¶ 23(b). Secretary Clinton responded: “Not me, that's all I can tell you.” Id.

         • March 9, 2016, during the Democratic Presidential Debate. Secretary Clinton was asked about plaintiff Smith's allegation that Secretary Clinton lied to her by blaming the Benghazi attack on the YouTube video. Compl. ¶ 23(c). Secretary Clinton responded:

I feel a great deal of sympathy for the families of the four brave Americans that we lost at Benghazi, and I certainly can't even imagine the grief that she has for losing her son, but she's wrong. She's absolutely wrong.

Id.

         • July 31, 2016 interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News. In response to a question about “why [plaintiffs] would make . . . up” their claims, Secretary Clinton said:

Chris, my heart goes out to both of them. Losing a child under any circumstances, especially in this case, two State Department employees, extraordinary men both of them, two CIA contractors gave their lives protecting our country, our values. I understand the grief and the incredible sense of loss that can motivate that. As other members of families who lost loved ones have said, that's not what they heard. I don't hold any ill feeling for someone who in that moment may not fully recall everything that was or wasn't said.

Compl. ¶ 23(d).[3]

         Plaintiffs make the conclusory assertion that Secretary Clinton “defamed [p]laintiffs by either directly calling them liars, or by strongly implying that they are liars.” Compl. ¶ 23.

         Plaintiffs filed this six-count complaint on August 8, 2016. In Count I, plaintiffs bring a claim for wrongful death, alleging that “[t]he deaths of Sean Smith and Tyrone Woods were directly and proximately caused by the negligent and reckless actions of [Secretary] Clinton, who used her private email server to send and receive secret, confidential, and classified government information that compromised the location of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and thus the U.S. Department of State ... in Benghazi, Libya.” Compl. ¶ 26. In Count II, plaintiffs allege that the four statements Secretary Clinton made during the campaign in 2015 and 2016 were defamatory, id. ¶¶ 33-37, and in Count III, they allege that those four statements placed them in a false light. Id. ¶¶ 39-42. In Count IV, plaintiffs allege that Secretary Clinton acted negligently in the handling of her private email server, and that her negligence directly and proximately caused the deaths of Sean Smith and Tyrone Woods. Id. ¶¶ 44-48. In Count V, plaintiffs allege that Secretary Clinton committed the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress (1) when she “used her private email server to send and receive confidential and classified government information, ” and (2) in defaming and holding plaintiffs in a false light during the campaign. Id. ¶¶ 50-52. And in Count VI, plaintiffs allege that Secretary Clinton negligently inflicted emotional distress when she (1) was “negligent and reckless” in her “handling of classified government information, ” and (2) when she defamed plaintiffs and held them in a false light. Id. ¶¶ 54-56.[4]

         On October 21, 2016, the United States filed a motion pursuant to the Westfall Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2679, arguing that the United States should be substituted as a defendant for all counts that arose out of Secretary Clinton's actions as Secretary of State. U.S. Mot. for Partial Substitution [Dkt. # 23] (“U.S. Mot. to Substitute”) at 3-4. Accordingly, the United States has requested that Counts I and IV be deemed to be against the United States in their entirety, and that Counts V and VI should be deemed to be against the United States insofar as they allege wrongdoing arising out of events that occurred when Secretary Clinton served as an officer of the United States. Id. Based on that substitution, the United States filed a motion to dismiss Counts I and IV in their entirety, and to dismiss Counts V and VI in part, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. United States Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. # 24] (“U.S. MTD”) at 1-2. The government also moved to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction due to a failure to properly serve Secretary Clinton or the United States. Id. at 3-4.

         On November 14, 2016, Secretary Clinton filed a separate motion to dismiss plaintiffs' claims based on her conduct as a Presidential candidate for defamation, false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress, for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Def. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. # 28] (“Clinton MTD”).

         Plaintiffs opposed the motions filed by the United States, Pls.' Opp. to the U.S. Mot. to Substitute & U.S. MTD [Dkt. # 30] (“Pls.' Opp. to U.S. Mots.”), and they opposed Secretary Clinton's motion to dismiss as well. Pl.'s Mem. of Law in Opp. to Clinton MTD [Dkt. # 34] (“Pls.' Opp. to Clinton MTD”). The United States replied in support of its motions, Reply Mem. in Further Supp. of U.S. Mot. to Substitute [Dkt. # 32] (“U.S. Substitution Reply”); U.S. Reply Mem. in Further Supp. of U.S. MTD [Dkt. # 33] (“U.S. MTD Reply”), and Secretary Clinton replied in support of her motion to dismiss as well. Def. Clinton's Reply in Supp. of Clinton MTD [Dkt. # 35] (“Clinton MTD Reply”).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss under either Rule 12(b)(1) or 12(b)(6), the Court must “treat the complaint's factual allegations as true . . . and must grant plaintiff ‘the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.'” Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (internal citations omitted), quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979); see also Am. Nat'l Ins. Co. v. FDIC, 642 F.3d 1137, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 2011). Nevertheless, the Court need not accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff if those inferences are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint, nor must the Court accept plaintiff's legal conclusions. Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002).

         I. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         Under Rule 12(b)(1), the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992); Shekoyan v. Sibley Int'l Corp., 217 F.Supp.2d 59, 63 (D.D.C. 2002). Federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and the law presumes that “a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994); see also Gen. Motors Corp. v. EPA, 363 F.3d 442, 448 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (“As a court of limited jurisdiction, we begin, and end, with an examination of our jurisdiction.”). “[B]ecause subject-matter jurisdiction is ‘an Art[icle] III as well as a statutory requirement . . . no action of the parties can confer subject-matter ...


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