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Wolf v. Menh

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 8, 2019




         In 2016, Plaintiff August Wolf sought the Connecticut Republican Party's nomination for a seat in the United States Senate. Mr. Wolf's campaign was derailed, however, after one of his advisors, Defendant Samantha Menh, resigned from his campaign and filed suit against him in Connecticut Superior Court alleging sexual harassment, among other misdeeds. Now Mr. Wolf has responded by suing Ms. Menh for defamation. But Ms. Menh's allegedly defamatory statements are protected by an absolute litigation privilege and cannot be the basis of a defamation suit. Thus, the Court will dismiss Mr. Wolf's Complaint.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2016, Mr. Wolf sought the Connecticut Republican Party's nomination to run against Democrat Richard Blumenthal for the United States Senate. Compl. [Dkt. 1] ¶ 3. To help Mr. Wolf qualify for the Republican Primary, Mr. Wolf's campaign organization, August Wolf for Senate (AWFS), hired Ms. Menh in March 2016 to serve as Finance Director and Advisor. Id. ¶ 4. Apparently, things did not go well: Ms. Menh resigned six weeks later. Id. Things then got worse. On June 1, 2016, Ms. Menh filed a complaint in Connecticut Superior Court alleging, among other things, sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, and violation of campaign finance laws by Mr. Wolf and AWFS. Compl. ¶ 26; see also Complaint, Menh v. Wolf, No. FSTCV166028725S (Conn. Super. Ct. June 1, 2016). Ms. Menh also shared copies of her complaint with media sources, which widely distributed the story. Compl. ¶¶ 28-29. Mr. Wolf alleges that the salacious nature of her allegations and the resulting negative publicity forced AWFS to suspend Mr. Wolf's Senate campaign. Id. ¶ 32. The negative publicity also cost Mr. Wolf his job as Managing Director at Lebenthal Asset Management in New York City and has allegedly dogged him ever since. Id.

         Mr. Wolf denies Ms. Menh's allegations and argues that the Connecticut litigation is a sham intended to punish Mr. Wolf for withstanding Ms. Menh's attempts to extort money from him. Id. ¶¶ 25-28, 31. Therefore, he has filed this lawsuit against Ms. Menh, alleging tortious interference with contract (Count I), defamation per se (Count II), and common law conspiracy (Count III). See generally Compl.

         This case was originally filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia. Id. ¶¶ 5-7; see generally Wolf v. Menh, No. 18-CV-1180 (E.D. Va.). However, Judge Liam O'Grady of that court found that the Eastern District did not have personal jurisdiction over Ms. Menh because she is a resident of the District of Columbia and has not established minimum contacts with Virginia “enough so ‘that the defendant's conduct and connection with the forum State are such that he should reasonably anticipate being haled into court there.'” Order, Wolf v. Menh, No. 18-CV-1180 (E.D. Va. Feb 5, 2019), Dkt. 19 at 4 (hereinafter Transfer Order) (quoting World-Wide Volkwagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286, 297 (1980)). Judge O'Grady also found that venue in the Eastern District was improper because Ms. Menh did not live in Virginia and a substantial part of the events giving rise to the claim did not take place in Virginia. See Id. at 6-7 (“Rather, reading the Complaint as a whole it is clear that the substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise to this claim took place in the District of Connecticut.”). At Mr. Wolf's request, Judge O'Grady transferred the case to this Court, where venue and personal jurisdiction are proper. See Id. at 7; see also 28 U.S.C. § 1406 (“The district court of a district in which is filed a case laying venue in the wrong division or district shall . . . transfer such case to any district or division in which it could have been brought.”). Ms. Menh moves to dismiss this case or compel arbitration. Mr. Wolf opposes. The matter is ripe for review.[1]


         A. Motion to Dismiss

         A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) challenges the adequacy of a complaint on its face. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). A complaint must be sufficient “to give a defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations omitted). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual information, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). A court must assume the truth of all well-pleaded factual allegations and construe reasonable inferences from those allegations in favor of the plaintiff. See Sissel v. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 760 F.3d 1, 4 (D.C. Cir. 2014). However, a court need not accept inferences drawn by a plaintiff if such inferences are not supported by the facts set out in the complaint. See Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994). Further, a court need not accept legal conclusions set forth in a complaint. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. In addition to the complaint's factual allegations, the Court may consider “documents attached to or incorporated in the complaint, matters of which courts may take judicial notice, and documents appended to a motion to dismiss whose authenticity is not disputed, if they are referred to in the complaint and integral to a claim.” Harris v. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, 825 F.Supp.2d 82, 85 (D.D.C. 2011).

         B. Choice of Laws

         This Court has diversity jurisdiction because Mr. Wolf is a resident of Florida, Ms. Menh the District of Columbia, and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000. See Compl. ¶¶ 3-4; 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

         Federal courts sitting in diversity must apply the choice-of-law rules of the state in which they sit. Klaxon v. Stentor Electric Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 491 (1941). As a preliminary matter, Mr. Wolf notes an exception to this rule: when a plaintiff is granted a change in venue, the new court continues to apply the laws of the forum from which the case was transferred. See Ferens v. John Deere Co., 494 U.S. 516, 523-27 (1990); see also Van Dusen v. Barrack, 376 U.S. 612, 639 (1964) (applying the original forum's laws when transfer was initiated by the defendant). Accordingly, Mr. Wolf argues his case largely in line with Virginia law. But as with so many legal rules, there is an exception to the exception: the laws of the forum from which a case was transferred do not follow when the initial choice of venue was improper. See Gerena v. Korb, 617 F.3d 197, 204 (2d Cir. 2010) (“If a district court receives a case pursuant to a transfer under 28 U.S.C. § 1406(a), for improper venue . . . it logically applies the law of the state in which it sits, since the original venue, with its governing laws, was never a proper option.”); cf. Atl. Marine Const. Co. v. U.S. Dist. Court for the W. Dist. of Tex., 571 U.S. 49, 66 (2013) (rejecting “the rule that the law of the court in which the plaintiff inappropriately filed suit should follow the case to the forum contractually selected by the parties”). To allow otherwise would create opportunities for forum shopping and provide plaintiffs with state-law advantages to which they are not otherwise entitled. See Atl. Marine Const. Co., 571 U.S. at 66. Instead, the applicable law reverts to the default: the laws of the sitting court's forum. See Gerena, 617 F.3d at 204. Because this case was transferred to the District Court in D.C. for want of venue and jurisdiction in Virginia, this Court will apply D.C. law, including its choice of law rules. YWCA v. Allstate Ins. Co., 275 F.3d 1145, 1150 (D.C. Cir. 2002).

         The question, then, is whether Connecticut law or D.C. law should be applied. To determine which jurisdiction's law applies in a tort case, D.C. courts first ask whether there is a “true conflict” between the laws of relevant jurisdictions-“‘that is, whether more than one jurisdiction has a potential interest in having its law applied and, if so, whether the law of the competing jurisdictions is different.” In re APA Assessment Fee Litig., 766 F.3d 39, 52 (D.C. Cir. 2014). If there is no conflict, D.C. law applies by default. Geico v. Fetisoff, 958 F.2d 1137, 1141 (D.C. Cir. 1992) (citing Fowler v. A & A Co., 262 A.2d 344, 348 (D.C. 1970)). If a conflict of law exists, District of Columbia courts apply a “governmental interests analysis” together with a “most significant relationship” test. Oveissi v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 573 F.3d 835, 842 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (citing Hercules & Co., Ltd. v. Shama Rest. Corp., 566 A.2d 31, 40-41 (D.C. 1989) and Jaffe v. Pallotta TeamWorks, 374 F.3d 1223, 1227 (D.C. Cir. 2004)).

         Under the governmental interests test, a court evaluates the governmental policies underlying the applicable law and determines which jurisdiction's policy would be most advanced by having its law applied. Id. To determine which jurisdiction has the most significant relationship to a case, courts balance the competing interests of the two jurisdictions and apply the law of the jurisdiction with the more significant interest. Id. The court must consider (1) the place where the injury occurred; (2) the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred; (3) the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation, and place of business of the parties; and (4) the place where the relationship, if any, between the parties is centered. Herbert v. District of Columbia, 808 A.2d 776, 779 (D.C. 2002) (citing Restatement (Second) of Conflict of Laws § 145 (1971)). “Generally, for tort claims the jurisdiction in which the injury occurred has the most significant relationship.” Mattiaccio v. DHA Group, Inc., 20 F.Supp.3d 220, 228 (D.D.C. 2014) (citing Restatement (Second) Conflicts of Laws § 156 cmt. b (1971)). Further, “[t]he ultimate goal of a governmental interest analysis is to determine the jurisdiction with ‘the most significant relationship' to the issue in dispute.” ...

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