Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Fourth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Defamation Action Against New York Times in Hatfill Case

The Fourth Circuit, in a two to one ruling, has reversed a lower court and is allowing claims for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress to proceed against the New York Times and writer Nicholas D. Kristof. Steven J. Hatfill, whom the FBI and other government officials have described as "a person of interest" in the 2001 anthrax mailing attacks, filed the lawsuits after Kristof identified Hatfill as the likely killer in print in the Times in 2002.

In its decision, the Fourth Circuit began by stating, "We review de novo the district court's dismissal of Hatfill's complaint. A complaint should not be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." We must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations and view the complaint in the light most favorable to Hatfill. The district court stated that "this standard is to be applied with particular care" in reviewing defamation claims. To the extent that the district court applied a stricter standard to Hatfill's complaint than the ordinary standards under Rule 12(b)(6), that was error. A defamation complaint, like any other civil complaint in federal court, must provide "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief," ufficient to "give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests,".... While the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require more specific pleading in certain cases, defamation cases are not among them....  "

The court continued, "Hatfill contends that Kristof's columns defamed him by imputing to him the commission of crimes of moral turpitude, namely, the murders of five people who were exposed to the anthrax letters. If the columns fairly can be read to make such a charge, then they are defamatory per se....Considered in light of Carwile, Schnupp, and Wells, Hatfill's complaint adequately alleges that Kristof's columns, taken together, are capable of defamatory meaning. The columns did not describe any other actual or potential target of investigation, and they recounted detailed information pertaining to Hatfill alone. Once Kristof named Hatfill as Mr. Z (and perhaps even before that time), a reasonable reader of his columns could believe that Hatfill had the motive, means, and opportunity to prepare and send the anthrax letters in the fall of 2001; that he had particular expertise with powder forms of anthrax, the type used in the mailings; that his own anthrax vaccinations were current; that he was the prime suspect of the biodefense community as well as federal investigators; that he had failed numerous polygraph examinations; that specially trained bloodhounds had "responded strongly" to Hatfill, his apartment, and his girlfriend's apartment but not to anyone else or any other location; and that Hatfill was probably involved in similar anthrax episodes in recent years. Based on these assertions, a reasonable reader of Kristof's columns likely would conclude that Hatfill was responsible for the anthrax mailings in 2001."

The 4th Circuit also ruled that the district court also erred when considering the question of the statute of limitations. "Count Two alleges that each of eleven discrete factual assertions contained in Kristof's columns separately defamed Hatfill by incriminating him in the anthrax mailings. The district court dismissed this count on the grounds that (1) the statute of limitations barred any claims other than the claim asserted in Count One and (2) none of the eleven statements is independently capable of defamatory meaning. 1.Hatfill's defamation claims are subject to a one-year statute of limitations....Hatfill's claims accrued when Kristof's columns were published - between May and August 2002....Thus, Hatfill had until August 2003 (at the latest) to assert his defamation claims. Yet he did not file this complaint until July 2004. Under Virginia law, however, a plaintiff who voluntarily withdraws a state-court action and recommences it in federal court within six months may toll the statute of limitations as of the date he filed the initial state-court action. ...Hatfill filed a lawsuit in state court on June 18, 2003; took a nonsuit on March 9, 2004; and commenced this action in federal court on July 13, 2004. Thus, the one-year statute of limitations was tolled as of June 18, 2003."

With regard to the district court's dismissal of the IIED claim, "...[t]he district court's conclusion that "publishing news or commentary on matters of public concern" can never be sufficiently extreme or outrageous to support a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress sweeps too broadly....Accepting Hatfill's allegations as true, The Times intentionally published false charges accusing him of being responsible for anthrax mailings that resulted in five deaths, without regard for the truth of those charges and without giving Hatfill an opportunity to respond. Given the notoriety of the case, the charge of murder, and the refusal to permit comment by Hatfill's counsel, we conclude that the alleged misconduct is extreme or outrageous under Virginia law."

Read the ruling here.

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