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Ramos v. ADR Vantage, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 19, 2018

ADR VANTAGE, INC., Defendant.


          Amit P. Mehta, United States District Judge

         Before the court is Defendant ADR Vantage, Inc.'s Motion to Dismiss all counts of Plaintiff Joey Ramos's Complaint. See Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 4 [hereinafter Def.'s Mot.]; Mem. of P&A in Support of Def.'s Mot., ECF No. 4-1 [hereinafter Def.'s Mem.]. For the following reasons, the court denies Defendant's Motion in its entirety.

         Count I: Defamation

         Defendant offers a raft of disjointed arguments for why Plaintiff's defamation claim must be dismissed. None are persuasive.

         First, Defendant argues that the defamation claim is time-barred under the District of Columbia's one-year limitations period. See Def.'s Mem. at 3. But under District of Columbia law, a defamation claim, as here, which does not involve publication through the media, begins to accrue when the plaintiff “first saw or became aware of the contents of the [publication].” Maupin v. Haylock, 931 A.2d 1039, 1043 (D.C. 2007). Here, Plaintiff makes a plausible allegation that he did not learn of at least some of the alleged false statements contained in Defendant's report until February 10, 2018, within the one-year limitations period. See Compl., ECF No. 1 [hereinafter Compl.], ¶ 34.[1]

         Second, Defendant maintains that the report does not contain any defamatory statements. But that is not correct. “[A] statement is ‘defamatory' if it tends to injure the plaintiff in his trade, profession or community standing, or lower him in the estimation of the community.” Jankovic v. Int'l Crisis Grp., 494 F.3d 1080, 1091 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (quoting Moss v. Stockard, 580 A.2d 1011, 1023 (D.C. 1990)). Here, Plaintiff has identified multiple purportedly false statements that he claims have injured his professional reputation. See Compl. ¶¶ 33-34, 36.

         Third, Defendant insists that the statements in question cannot be defamatory because “[n]owhere in the report is the plaintiff identified by name.” Def.'s Mem. at 4. The absence of an express reference to Plaintiff by name is not, however, fatal to his claim. This court recently observed: “In [a prior case], the D.C. Circuit explained that the first element of defamation-that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement of and concerning the plaintiff-can be satisfied without specifically identifying the plaintiff by name. ‘[I]t suffices that the statements at issue lead the listener to conclude that the speaker is referring to the plaintiff by description.'” Vasquez v. Whole Foods Mkt., Inc., 302 F.Supp.3d 36, 64 (D.D.C. 2018) (quoting Croixland Properties Ltd. Partnership v. Corcoran, 174 F.3d 213, 216 (D.C. Cir. 1999)). In this case, the alleged defamatory report refers to an “IT Specialist, ” “Union President, ” and “IT Specialist/Union President.” Compl. ¶ 30. According to Plaintiff, he was the only IT Specialist at his place of employment and he was the union president at relevant times. Id. ¶¶ 8, 10. Thus, the alleged defamatory statements are plausibly “of and concerning” Plaintiff.

         Fourth, Defendant asserts that, because the report was commissioned to study the employment environment and make recommendations to agency management, the statements contained therein were privileged. See Def.'s Mem. at 4-5. Defendant is correct that the statements at issue might be privileged. See Wallace v. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, 715 A.2d 873, 879 (D.C. 1998) (recognizing a privilege “for anything ‘said or written by a master in giving the character of a servant who has been in his [or her] employment'”) (quoting White v. Nicholls, 44 U.S. 266, 287 (1845)). But such privilege is qualified, not absolute. See Id. It “can be lost if the publication occurs outside the normal channels, is otherwise excessive, or was made with malicious intent.” District of Columbia v. Thompson, 570 A.2d 277, 292 (D.C. 1990). Here, Plaintiff has alleged facts that make plausible the inapplicability of the privilege. The allegation that Defendant published the report to the union, see Compl. ¶ 39, may constitute “excessive publication” that defeats the privilege, see Thomas v. Howard, 168 A.2d 908, 910 (D.C. 1961) (“It was for the trier of fact to determine whether the publication was designedly excessive and whether the words were motivated by ill-will.”). Also, Plaintiff claims that Defendant should have known that the sources it relied on in the report were biased against him, see Id. ¶ 48, thereby suggesting possible bad faith. In short, whether the privilege applies will have to await further factual development. See Armenian Assembly of Am., Inc. v. Cafesjian, 597 F.Supp.2d 128, 138-39 (D.D.C. 2009) (rejecting application of qualified privilege on motion to dismiss where there were “disputed questions of fact”).

         Finally, Defendant maintains that, because the statements at issue are in the form of an opinion, they are not actionable. See Def.'s Mem. at 5. Even if Defendant's characterization of the statements as opinions was accurate, there “is no wholesale exemption from liability in defamation for statements of ‘opinion.' Instead, statements of opinion can be actionable if they imply a provably false fact, or rely upon stated facts that are provably false.” Moldea v. New York Times Co., 22 F.3d 310, 313 (D.C. Cir. 1994). The defense of a “legitimate expression of opinion . . . cannot . . . be made on the basis of the complaint, standing alone.” Wallace, 715 A.2d at 878.

         For these reasons, Plaintiff's defamation claim may proceed to discovery.

         Count IV: False Light Invasion of Privacy

         The court next turns to Plaintiff's claim for false light invasion of privacy. The torts of defamation and false light are “often analyzed in the same manner, at least where the plaintiff rests both his defamation and false light claims on the same allegations.” Zimmerman v. Al Jazeera Am., LLC, 246 F.Supp.3d 257, 273 (D.D.C. 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted). Because Defendant's arguments as to defamation and false light invasion of privacy are one and the same, see Def.'s Mem. at 7, that claim likewise survives Defendant's Motion to Dismiss.

         Count III: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

         Next up is Plaintiff's claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendant's sole argument is that Plaintiff has not alleged “extreme or outrageous conduct” in connection with the report's drafting. Def.s Mem. at 6-7. But the report contains at least one statement that is arguably libel per se in that it accuses Plaintiff of possible criminal misconduct. See Compl. ¶ 34 (alleging improper access to “data, email and telephones”); see also Def.'s Mem., Exs., ECF No. 4-2, at 47. “[S]tatements that are defamatory per se by their very nature are likely to cause mental and emotional distress . . . .” Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 262 (1978); cf. Amobi v. D.C. Dep't of Corr., 755 F.3d 980, 996 (D.C. Cir. 2014) ...

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