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Morrissey v. WTVR, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

January 9, 2020

WTVR, LLC d/b/a CBS 6, MARK HOLMBERG, and JOHN DOES 1-10 [WTVR Editors and Publishers, Defendants.


          Henry E. Hudson, Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff, Joseph D. Morrissey ("Morrissey"), is a well-known public figure in the Richmond, Virginia area.[1] In fact, the immediate lawsuit is the result of hyperbolic and arguably deprecating commentary by a Richmond television station during his candidacy for Mayor of the City of Richmond. Morrissey contends that the comments by WTVR, LLC ("CBS 6") reporter, Mark Holmberg ("Holmberg"), were false, defamatory, and insulting. He describes Holmberg's remarks as imputing his unfitness to serve as mayor and portraying him as a "stupid liar, who was a sex crazed maniac." (Compl. ¶ 12, ECF No. 1-2.) Morrissey seeks $1, 350, 000 in damages.[2] Defendant CBS 6 ("CBS 6") responds that the comments at issue were either the broadcaster's personal opinion of a public figure, which is "entitled to the broadest protection the First Amendment can afford," or factually true. Mahan v. Nat'l Conservative Political Action Comm., 315 S.E.2d 829, 833 (Va. 1984).

         The case is presently before the Court on CBS 6's Motion to Dismiss[3] pursuant to Federal Rule Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). ("Motion," ECF No. 3.) Rule 12(b)(6) requires the complaint to plead a plausible claim for relief. Because this Court's jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship, the substantive law of Virginia governs. Benner v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 93 F.3d 1228, 1234 (4th Cir. 1996). Both parties have filed memoranda supporting their respective positions, and the Court heard oral argument on December 19, 2019.

         The setting of this lawsuit is a commentary aired on September 2, 2016 by a CBS 6 reporter entitled "Richmond's Mayor Morrissey?" According to the Complaint, the commentary was republished online in an article with the headline "Holmberg: OMG: Sextin' Joe Morrissey is leading the mayor's race!" (Compl. ¶ 9.) Morrissey contends that during the broadcast, Holmberg falsely stated, "During the past couple of years, Richmond has made national news and international news as a cool place to live, to visit, to play and party. Now we're making national news because of this fool?” (Id. ¶ 12 (emphasis in original).) Morrissey characterizes this allegedly false statement as "the product of spite, ill-will, and an overt desire to discredit and destroy Joe's reputation for being extremely intelligent." (Id.)

         The next comment at issue concerns Morrissey's son. The Complaint alleges that

Holmberg intentionally spliced together Joe's comments regarding his son, Chase, and Holmberg's statement that Joe was "lying", to make it appear that Joe was "lying" about being Chase's father. During the interview, Joe stated, "do you think for a moment if that child [Chase] is mine, I would run from that? Not-not going to happen."

(Id. ¶ 13.) At this point, after airing a clip of the prior interview, Morrissey alleges that Holmberg stated, "He was lying to me then. He's lied to the investigators and everybody else in this case. That's why the state bar is coming after him, again." (Id.) Morrissey maintains that this portion of the presentation was an intentionally spliced clip of the interview and that his "accusation that Joe lied is malicious, spiteful, the product of ill-will, and is an overt attempt to discredit and destroy Joe's reputation for honesty and integrity." (Id. ¶ 14.) Morrissey added in his Complaint that "at the time of the on air 'interview', there was no evidence that the Virginia State Bar was 'coming after Morrissey again.'" (Id.)

         Morrissey next contends that Holmberg's statement that Morrissey "famously and stupidly published a planation style 'Gone with the Wind' photo of himself and his wife" was defamatory. (Id. ¶ 15 (internal quotation marks omitted).) Morrissey alleges that Holmberg's statements "evince a clear hatred of [him] with clear racial implications." (Id.)

         Finally, Morrissey draws the Court's attention to Holmberg's concluding comment: "Do we really want to elect this clown, this nonstop, one ring circus, this liar? Or do we want to elect somebody that's gonna lift us up to the heights that Richmond so richly deserves?" (Id. ¶ 16.) Morrissey contends that "[t]hese false accusations impute to Joe dishonesty, a lack of intelligence, lack of character, lack of sincerity and resolution to perform the duties of Mayor and imply that Joe is unfit to be Mayor of the City of Richmond." (Id.)

         Morrissey's legal arguments are largely premised on his contention that Holmberg's broadcast was an interview as opposed to mere commentary. Close examination of the video belies this argument. Most conspicuously, there is an orange footer labeling the entire presentation "Mark's commentary." (Compl. Ex. B, ECF No. 1-3.)[4] There is also a white footer stating "Mark: That just cannot happen." (Id.) Each of the segments in which Holmberg is questioning or conversing with Morrissey are date stamped as occurring in 2013 and 2014, while the commentary at issue was broadcasted on September 2, 2016. Furthermore, the news anchor introducing the piece said, "[F]or our Mark Holmberg, electing Morrissey would be a setback for a city getting attention lately for all the right reasons. Here's Mark's report and commentary." (Id. at 28.) Holmberg's broadcast concluded with the comment, "That's my take. Love to hear yours on" (Id. at 30.) Holmberg's broadcast had none of the attributes of an interview, just his personal opinion.

         The context of Holmberg's comments is critical to the ensuing analysis because of the heightened First Amendment protection afforded the media reporting on public figures vying for public office. See Chapin v. Knight-Ridder, Inc., 993 F.2d 1087, 1091-92 (4th Cir. 1993). "[T]he First Amendment's press and speech clauses greatly restrict the common law where the defendant is a member of the press, the plaintiff is a public figure, or the subject matter of the supposed libel touches on a matter of public concern." Id. (citing N.Y. Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)). As the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, public figures voluntarily expose themselves to the "risk of injury from defamatory falsehood." Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 347 (1974).

         "As an accommodation to the First Amendment's protections of free speech and press, the Supreme Court has held that 'public officials' and 'public figures' must prove, as part of a defamation case, that the defendant's allegedly defamatory statement was made with 'actual malice,' meaning that it was made 'with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.'" Hatfill v. N.Y.Times Co., 532 F.3d 312, 317 (4th Cir. 2014) (internal citations omitted). Reckless disregard requires proof the speaker "in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication." Gertz, 418 U.S. at 334 n.6 (citing St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727, 731 (1968)); see also Mayfield v. NASCAR, 674 F.3d 369, 377 (4th Cir. 2012).

         Mere proof or allegations that the defendant failed to adequately investigate or check the accuracy of a false statement is insufficient to support a claim of defamation under this standard. Gertz, 418 U.S. at 334-37, 342-43. To prevail, a plaintiff must demonstrate "subjective awareness of probable falsity" of the publication. Id. at 334 n.6 (citing St. Amant, 390 U.S. at 731).

         Defamation jurisprudence is well established in the Commonwealth of Virginia. A viable claim requires proof of publication of an actionable statement with the requisite sting. Schaecher v. Bouffault,772 S.E.2d 589 (Va. 2015). "To be actionable, the statement must be both false and defamatory." Tharpe v. Saunders, 737 S.E.2d 890, 892 (Va. 2013). CBS 6 contends that Holmberg's comments are neither. It maintains that even if Holmberg's commentary is found to be "insulting, offensive, or otherwise inappropriate," it constitutes "no more than ...

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