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Stark v. Swift

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 4, 2019

HEATHER SWIFT, et al., Defendants.




         Pro se Plaintiff Wilfred Michael Stark III brings claims for conspiracy, defamation, intentional infliction of emotion distress (“IIED”), and false arrest and malicious prosecution against 22 defendants. Fifteen of those Defendants-the Republican Standard; Adam Laxalt; Robert List; Stephen Puetz; Ryan Keller; Joseph Brown; Ed Gillepsie; the Republican Governors Association; the Republican National Committee; the National Republican Congressional Committee; the National Republican Senatorial Committee; the Daily Caller; and the United States acting on behalf of Heather Swift, Amanda Kaster-Averill, and Tyler Dever-move to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint in six different motions.

         For the reasons that follow, the motions to dismiss are granted.


         Plaintiff is a journalist who, at the time of the events at issue in the Complaint, was employed by ShareBlue Media and later the American Ledger, [1] two progressive media organizations. Complaint, ECF No. 1-1 [hereinafter Compl.], ¶¶ 6, 13. Plaintiff was tasked with covering Republican politicians and conservative leaders. Id. ¶¶ 7, 13. In his Complaint, Plaintiff describes a series of altercations with candidates, politicians, and staffers during which Defendants allegedly made, or conspired to make, false and damaging statements against Plaintiff and, in at least one case, falsely accused him of assaulting a female staffer. Id. ¶¶ 8-35. These confrontations and alleged defamatory statements led to Plaintiff's arrest in two instances, and his removal from the Conservative Political Action Conference in another. Id. ¶¶ 12, 16, 19-20. Following these incidents, Plaintiff alleges that the National Republican Congressional Committee assigned interns to follow him around the Capitol grounds carrying signs bearing his mugshot. Id. ¶ 28.

         On March 15, 2019, Plaintiff filed a four-count complaint in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia against 22 individual and entity defendants, alleging conspiracy (Count I), defamation (Count II), IIED (Count III), and false arrest and malicious prosecution (Count V).[2]See generally Compl. On April 10, 2019, Defendants Heather Swift, Amanda Kaster-Averill, and Tyler Dever-all federal employees at the relevant time-removed the suit to federal court. Notice of Removal, ECF No. 1. Shortly thereafter, fifteen of the named defendants filed six different motions to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint. See Mots. to Dismiss and Am. Mots. to Dismiss, ECF Nos. 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 24. The court now turns to these motions.


         Seven defendants move to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction in three separate motions. A plaintiff bears “the burden of establishing the court's personal jurisdiction” over a defendant. FC Inv. Grp. LC v. IFX Markets, Ltd., 529 F.3d 1087, 1091 (D.C. Cir. 2008); see also Crane v. N.Y. Zoological Soc'y, 894 F.2d 454, 456 (D.C. Cir. 1990). To establish personal jurisdiction, a plaintiff “‘must allege specific acts connecting [the] defendant with the forum' and ‘cannot rely on conclusory allegations.'” Clay v. Blue Hackle N. Am., LLC, 907 F.Supp.2d 85, 87 (D.D.C. 2012) (quoting Second Amendment Found. v. U.S. Conference of Mayors, 274 F.3d 521, 524 (D.C. Cir. 2001); Purdue Research Found. v. Sanofi-Synthelabo, S.A., 332 F.Supp.2d 63, 66 (D.D.C. 2004)). A District of Columbia court may exercise general jurisdiction only over individuals who are domiciled in the District. D.C. Code § 13-422; Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U.S. 117, 137 (2014). For an individual, “[d]omicile is determined by two factors: physical presence in a state, and intent to remain there for an unspecified or indefinite period of time.” Prakash v. Am. Univ., 727 F.2d 1174, 1180 (D.C. Cir. 1984). A corporation is domiciled where it is incorporated and where it has its principal place of business. Daimler AG, 571 U.S. at 137.

         “To establish personal jurisdiction over a non-resident, a court must engage in a two-part inquiry: A court must first examine whether jurisdiction is applicable under the state's long-arm statute and then determine whether a finding of jurisdiction satisfies the constitutional requirements of due process.” GTE New Media Servs. Inc. v. BellSouth Corp., 199 F.3d 1343, 1347 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (citing United States v. Ferrara, 54 F.3d 825, 828 (D.C. Cir. 1995)). As to each of the seven moving defendants, the only actions attributed to them occurred outside of the District. Accordingly, the only applicable section of the District's long-arm statute is subsection 4, which confers jurisdiction over a defendant that “caus[es] tortious injury in the District of Columbia by an act or omission outside the District of Columbia if he regularly does or solicits business, engages in any other persistent course of conduct, or derives substantial revenue from goods used or consumed, or services rendered, in the District.” D.C. Code § 13-423(4). The court will assume for purposes of this motion that Plaintiff suffered a reputational injury in the District from the alleged defamation. See Mastro v. Potomac Elec. Power Co., 447 F.3d 843, 857-58 (D.C. Cir. 2006). Plaintiff has not, however, met his burden of establishing the other requirements under subsection 4. The court will separately discuss each motion below. Because the court finds that it cannot exercise specific jurisdiction over any of the seven moving defendants under the District of Columbia's long-arm statute, it need not address whether exercising jurisdiction over the defendants would satisfy the Constitution's due process requirements.


         Defendant Republican Standard is a Virginia-registered limited liability company that maintains its principal place of business in Richmond, Virginia. Am. Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 17-3, ¶¶ 1-3. It is an online news platform that publishes content about the Republican Party and its candidates by means of its website. Id. ¶ 4. It has only one, part-time employee, who works out of their Richmond office, as well as two co-owners, both of whom reside in Virginia. Id. ¶¶ 5-8. Accordingly, the Republican Standard is not domiciled in the District of Columbia, and this court cannot exercise general jurisdiction over it. See Daimler AG, 571 U.S. at 137.

         The court also cannot exercise specific jurisdiction over the Republican Standard. Plaintiff has provided nothing in his Complaint from which the court can infer that the Republican Standard “regularly does or solicits business, engages in any other persistent course of conduct, or derives substantial revenue from goods used or consumed, or services rendered, in the District of Columbia.” D.C. Code § 13-423(4). Plaintiff makes very few references to the Republican Standard in his Complaint. At the beginning and end of the Complaint, the Republican Standard is mentioned in the list of all defendants. See Compl. at pp. 5, 6, 17. Plaintiff also alleges that the Republican Standard and nineteen other defendants “communicated at various times and instances to marginalize, discredit and defame [Plaintiff] with the common purpose of forcing him to stop holding Republicans accountable in the press.” Id. ¶ 37. In neither instance does Plaintiff assert that the Republican Standard did any business or took part in any course of conduct in the District, even in a tangential way. See generally Compl. The court thus cannot exercise specific jurisdiction over the Republican Standard. Accordingly, its motion to dismiss is granted.


         Defendants Adam Laxalt, Robert List, Stephen Puetz, Ryan Keller, and Joseph Brown (“the Las Vegas defendants”) are each non-District of Columbia residents. Brown, Laxalt, and List are residents of Nevada, Brown Affidavit, 14-2; Laxalt Affidavit, ECF No. 16-2; List Affidavit, ECF No. 16-3; Keller is a resident of Iowa, Keller Affidavit, ECF No. 15-2; and Puetz is a resident of California, Puetz Affidavit, ECF No. 16-4. The court therefore cannot exercise general jurisdiction over any of them.

         Further, the only allegations levelled against the Las Vegas defendants took place in Las Vegas, Nevada. Plaintiff contends that in October 2018, he was at an event where Laxalt was scheduled to give remarks. Compl. ¶ 30. After the event, Plaintiff followed Laxalt into the hallway to question him, at which point Plaintiff alleges that Laxalt's staff “assaulted” him. Id. ¶ 31. Police arrived on the scene, and the Las Vegas defendants gave “false and defamatory statements to the police, ” at which point Plaintiff was arrested and taken to jail. Id. ΒΆ 32. Even viewing this recitation of facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, all of the events he describes took place in Nevada. Nowhere does he contend that the Las Vegas defendants did business in the District of Columbia, derived revenue from activities in the District, engaged in a course ...

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