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Johnson v. Metropolitan Direct Property & Casualty Insurance Co.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 11, 2019

JOE JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
METROPOLITAN DIRECT PROPERTY & CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Following a car accident on I-695 here in Washington, Plaintiff Joe Johnson filed a multi-count Complaint against the other individuals involved, their insurance company, and its claims adjuster. As relevant here, Defendants Metropolitan Direct Property & Casualty Insurance Company (MetLife) and its adjuster, Christian Hayman, first sought a more definite statement as to one count (defamation) and moved to dismiss another (civil conspiracy). The Court granted the former motion because the allegations were too vague. As to the latter, it gave Plaintiff a chance to cure the count's lacking detail instead of dismissing it outright. Johnson having amended his Complaint, Defendants return with the same two motions. This round now yields a different result. Finding that Plaintiff has complied with the Court's instruction to add specificity to his defamation claim but not his civil-conspiracy count, the Court will deny Defendants' Motion for More Definite Statement but grant their partial Motion to Dismiss.

         I. Background

         Because the Court opined on similar motions less than three months ago, it will save its ink for this case's procedural history and point readers interested in the factual underpinnings to its prior Opinion. See Johnson v. Metro. Direct Property & Casualty Insurance Co., No. 18-1715, 2018 WL 4964504 (D.D.C. Oct. 15, 2018). A cursory summary of the facts will do for now.

         While stuck in traffic on the freeway last fall, Johnson contends that another car struck his. See ECF No. 33 (Second Amended Complaint) at 3. The offending vehicle was driven by Defendant Mark Johnson (no relation) and owned by Defendant Patricia Grimes, who was not present for the accident. Id at 3, ¶ 7. Defendant Nneka Grimes, rather, sat in the vehicle's passenger seat. Id at 3, ¶ 8. As Plaintiff recounts it, following the initial accident, Defendant Johnson physically assaulted him. Id Defendants, however, told a very different story - in which Plaintiff was at fault - to their insurance carrier, who then appears to have passed this version of events on to Johnson's insurer. Id at 4, ¶ 45.

         It is these latter statements that serve as the focal point of the instant dispute. Plaintiff asserts a defamation claim against both the insurance carrier that covered Grimes's vehicle, MetLife, and its adjuster, Hayman. Id, ¶¶ 29-35 (Count IV). He similarly brings a civil-conspiracy claim against all Defendants, asserting that the alleged defamation was the result of concerted action. Id, ¶¶ 42-47 (Count VI). The remaining counts are pled solely against Defendants other than MetLife and Hayman.

         These two Defendants first responded with a Motion for More Definite Statement as to the defamation claim, per Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(e). See ECF No. 11. The Court agreed that the Complaint lacked requisite detail and ordered Plaintiff to, at a minimum, “specifically allege the form of the statement - e.g., email, letter, conversation” - at issue, should he choose to amend. Johnson, 2018 WL 4964504, at *3. It similarly directed Johnson to “state at least generally to whom the statement was published.” Id.

         At the same time, Defendants also moved to dismiss the civil-conspiracy count. See ECF No. 12. Although the Court agreed that this count, too, could not proceed as written, it gave “Plaintiff another opportunity to state this claim with more specificity to see if he can sufficiently allege an actual conspiracy.” Johnson, 2018 WL 4964504, at *5.

         Johnson took the Court up on its invitation and amended both counts. Undaunted by the first go-round, Defendants MetLife and Hayman (who, for purposes of this Opinion, the Court will refer to collectively as “MetLife”) again file the same two Motions.

         II. Legal Standard

         In evaluating Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, 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) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)); see also Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253-54 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The Court need not accept as true, however, “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the Complaint. See Trudeau v. FTC, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of an action where a complaint fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Although “detailed factual allegations” are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). For a plaintiff to survive a 12(b)(6) motion, the facts alleged in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007).

         Rule 12(e) permits a defendant to move for a more definite statement if “a pleading . . . is so vague or ambiguous that the party cannot reasonably prepare a response.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(e). “[W]hen a defendant is unclear about the meaning of a particular allegation in the complaint, the proper course of action is not to move to dismiss but to move for a more definite statement.” Hilska v. Jones,217 F.R.D. 16, 21 (D.D.C. 2003) (quoting Am. Nurses' Ass'n v. Illinois, 783 F.2d 716, 725 (7th Cir. 1986)). “Normally, of course, the basis for requiring a more definite statement under Rule 12(e) is unintelligibility, not mere lack of detail.” Thorp v. District of Columbia, 309 F.R.D. 88, 90 (D.D.C. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Indeed, “a plaintiff need not allege all the facts necessary to prove its claim so long as [he] provides ...


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