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Wilson v. DNC Services Corp

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 22, 2018

WILLIE LEE WILSON et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DNC SERVICES CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TREVOR N. MCFADDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Willie Lee Wilson is an African-American citizen who ran in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Mr. Wilson and his campaign committee allege in their Amended Complaint that the DNC Services Corporation, doing business as the Democratic National Committee, or DNC, discriminated against Mr. Wilson and thwarted his campaign efforts because of his race. They seek $2 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages under four theories of recovery: breach of contract, promissory estoppel, race discrimination in violation of the right under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 to make and enforce contracts, and conspiracy to violate civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985. Plaintiffs' breach of contract and promissory estoppel theories fail because the Amended Complaint does not adequately allege the existence of a contract that the DNC breached or of an unkept promise by the DNC on which the Plaintiffs reasonably relied. But it would be premature to dismiss Plaintiffs' Section 1981 and Section 1985 claims at this early stage in the proceedings. Thus, the DNC's Motion to Dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Mr. Wilson describes himself as the son of a sharecropper, an entrepreneur with a rags-to-riches story, a philanthropist, and a religious motivational speaker. Am. Compl. 1, ¶¶ 5, 8. Mr. Wilson ran in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, formally registering his campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission in May 2015 and qualifying to be on the ballot in nine or ten states. Id. 2, ¶¶ 7, 10, 52. Mr. Wilson describes his message as one of “governmental accountability, equal justice, business development and social and economic opportunity.” Id. ¶ 6. He believes this message appeals to working and middle-class Americans and that his candidacy had the potential to attract “prospective African-American and other voters.” Id. ¶¶ 7-8. According to Mr. Wilson, DNC leadership intended to “ensure” that Hillary Clinton won the Party's nomination and “viewed Candidate Wilson's race and the potential racial implications of his candidacy as a threat.” Id. ¶¶ 7, 9.

         At the end of May 2015, Mr. Wilson advised the DNC through counsel that he intended to seek the Party's nomination. Id. Exs. B, D 3.[1] On July 6, 2015, counsel contacted the DNC a second time, asking for confirmation that the DNC “recognized” Mr. Wilson and seeking information about the nomination process, the DNC debate schedule, and any other resources the DNC could offer. Id. Ex. C. In response, the DNC introduced counsel to its Party Affairs Director, who sent counsel several documents about the nomination and delegate selection process. Id. Ex. D 1. It also explained that Mr. Wilson's campaign would need to meet certain threshold requirements to participate in the Democratic primary debates or in a meeting the DNC would hold that August. Id. Ex. D 2. Finally, the DNC offered to answer any further questions and introduced counsel to its National Political Director as a contact who could answer state-specific questions and who could make introductions to state Party leadership if the campaign needed them. Id. According to Mr. Wilson, this correspondence constituted a promise “to provide assistance to Candidate Wilson in the form of introductions to State Party officials, logistical resources, and general political assistance.” Id. ¶ 37.

         Mr. Wilson alleges that, despite this promise, the DNC “acting through its officers, agents, employees, and other independent contractors and representatives . . . collaborated, conspired, and agreed amongst themselves to hamper, impede and sabotage [his] campaign.” Id. ¶ 92. According to Mr. Wilson, the DNC resisted his campaign efforts by barring him from DNC-sponsored events and encouraging state Party officials to bar him from events that they organized. Id. ¶¶ 41-43. In particular, the DNC denied Mr. Wilson access to its August meeting. Id. ¶¶ 45-48, 56-58. And the DNC acquiesced in a decision by Secret Service agents[2] detailed to Mrs. Clinton's security team to keep Mr. Wilson off the stage at multi-candidate campaign event co-sponsored by the DNC and the South Carolina Democratic Committee, even though Mr. Wilson had been invited to appear on stage. ¶¶ 93-104. Mr. Wilson also alleges that the DNC inhibited his campaign by refusing to “sanction” it, which prevented him from gaining ballot access in many of the 19 states where he sought to register. Id. ¶¶ 50-51, 55.

         Finally, Mr. Wilson alleges that the DNC “selectively entered licensing agreements with presidential campaign committees” to provide candidates access to a nationwide database of Democratic voter data. Id. ¶ 59. According to Mr. Wilson, the DNC made this vital fundraising and voter identification resource available to white candidates, although Bernie Sanders' campaign had to sue to enforce its licensing agreement. Id. ¶¶ 60-61, 64. But the DNC did not offer Mr. Wilson the same opportunity to license its voter data. Id. ¶ 62; see also ¶ 38. Mr. Wilson alleges that, because the DNC failed to give him the same licensing opportunity that it offered to similarly situated white candidates, only white candidates enjoyed the benefit of the DNC's voter data. Id. ¶¶ 63, 66.

         The Democratic Party chose Hillary Clinton as its nominee for President in July, 2016. In April, 2017, Mr. Wilson and his campaign committee sued the DNC. The DNC moved to dismiss the Complaint. While that motion was pending, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Leave to Amend their Complaint, together with a copy of their proposed Amended Complaint. While that motion was pending, Plaintiffs filed a second Motion for Leave to Amend, attaching another proposed Amended Complaint. I granted Plaintiffs' second motion, and the filing of their Amended Complaint mooted the DNC's pending Motion to Dismiss. The DNC filed a second Motion to Dismiss, which is now ripe.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations that, if true, “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Plausibility requires that a complaint raise “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Pleading facts that are “merely consistent with” a defendant's liability “stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 545-46. Thus, a court evaluating a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim does not accept the truth of legal conclusions or “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. That said, it construes the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accepts as true all reasonable inferences drawn from well-pled factual allegations. See In re United Mine Workers of Am. Emp. Benefit Plans Litig., 854 F.Supp. 914, 915 (D.D.C. 1994). Consideration is limited to “the facts alleged in the complaint, any documents either attached to or incorporated in the complaint and matters of which [the court] may take judicial notice.” Hurd v. D.C. Gov't, 864 F.3d 671, 678 (D.C. Cir. 2017).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The law contains many measures to combat racial discrimination and to protect equality. Plaintiffs invoke several of them in support of their claims against the DNC, and I evaluate these issues with care. The law also protects “the freedom to join together in furtherance of common political beliefs.” Cal. Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567, 574 (2000). And this right “necessarily presupposes the freedom to identify the people who constitute that association, and to limit the association to those people only.” Id. Jones held that the right to avoid unwanted association is particularly important when selecting a party's nominee. Id. at 575. This is because the nomination process “often determines the party's positions on the most significant public policy issues of the day, and even when those positions are predetermined it is the nominee who becomes the party's ambassador to the general electorate in winning it over to the party's views.” Id. This First Amendment right is also the law of the land, and I apply it with equal care.

         A. Plaintiffs Fail to Allege Facts Showing the Formation of an Implied Contract

          Plaintiffs allege that the DNC entered an implied contract with Mr. Wilson and that this contract contained an implicit covenant of good faith and fair dealing that the DNC breached. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 12, 70.[3] “For an enforceable contract to exist, there must be both (1) agreement as to all material terms; and (2) intention of the parties to be bound.” Georgetown Entm't Corp. v. Dist. of Columbia, 496 A.2d 587, 590 (D.C. 1985). An implied contract is no exception, as “it differs from other contracts only in that it has not been committed to writing or stated orally in express terms, but rather is inferred from the conduct of the ...


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