Thursday, December 13, 2018
A 105-page opinion of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals
These appeals present us with legal issues of first impression concerning the special motion to dismiss created by the District of Columbia’s Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (Anti-SLAPP) Act, D.C. Code §§ 16-5501 to -5505 (2012 Repl.): whether denial of a special motion to dismiss is immediately appealable and the standard applicable in considering the merits of an Anti-SLAPP special motion to dismiss.
Appellee Michael E. Mann is a well-known climate scientist whose research in studying the “paleoclimate,” or ancient climate, has featured prominently in the politically charged debate about climate change. Dr. Mann filed an action for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), Rand Simberg, National Review, Inc. (National Review), and Mark Steyn based on articles written by Mr. Simberg, Mr. Steyn, and National Review’s editor Rich Lowry that appeared on the websites of CEI and National Review. Dr. Mann’s complaint claimed that the articles which criticized Dr. Mann’s conclusions about global warming and accused him of deception and academic and scientific misconduct contained false statements that injured his reputation and standing in the scientific and academic communities of which he is a part.
Defendants argued that Dr. Mann’s lawsuit infringes on their First Amendment right of free speech and moved for dismissal under the Anti-SLAPP Act and, alternatively, under Superior Court Rule 12 (b)(6). The trial court ruled that Dr. Mann’s claims were “likely to succeed on the merits” — the standard established in the Anti-SLAPP Act to defeat a motion to dismiss — and denied appellants’ motions to dismiss and their subsequent motions to reconsider.
Appellants — CEI, National Review and Mr. Simberg — sought interlocutory review in this court of the trial court’s denial of their motions to dismiss. As a preliminary matter, we hold that we have jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine to hear appellants’ interlocutory appeals of the trial court’s denial of their special motions to dismiss filed under the Anti-SLAPP Act. We further hold that the Anti-SLAPP Act’s “likely to succeed” standard for overcoming a properly filed special motion to dismiss requires that the plaintiff present evidence — not simply allegations — and that the evidence must be legally sufficient to permit a jury properly instructed on the applicable constitutional standards to reasonably find in the plaintiff’s favor. Having conducted an independent review of the evidence to ensure that it surmounts the constitutionally required threshold, we conclude that Dr. Mann has presented evidence sufficient to defeat the special motions to dismiss as to some of his claims.
Accordingly, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
A claim that the court ordered dismissed
The complaint alleges that as a result of the defamatory statements “besmirching Dr. Mann’s reputation and comparing him to a convicted child molester,” Dr. Mann has suffered “extreme emotional distress,” “mental anguish,” and “personal humiliation.” From the statement itself, a jury could infer that the comparison to [Jerry] Sandusky was particularly hurtful. Dr. Mann’s requests for an apology and retraction, and his undertaking this litigation, would allow a jury to infer that he was so deeply aggrieved that he deemed it necessary to restore his public reputation. Dr. Mann has presented no evidence, however, that his understandable consternation met the high bar of “severe emotional distress,” which requires a showing beyond mere “mental anguish and stress” and must be “of so acute a nature that harmful physical consequences are likely to result.” Armstrong v. Thompson, 80 A.3d 177, 189-90 (D.C. 2013) (quoting Futrell, 816 A.2d at 808); see also Hedgepeth v. Whitman Walker Clinic, 22 A.3d 789, 81 (D.C. 2011) (en banc) (noting that claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress requires showing of emotional distress that is “acute, enduring or life-altering”). We, therefore, conclude that, on the record before us, the evidence is insufficient to support a finding that Dr. Mann suffered “severe” emotional distress.
Senior Judge Ruiz authored the opinion, joined by Associate Judges Beckwith and Easterly.
Update: A reader correctly notes that this opinion was issued two years ago and that today's opinion has only minor additions.
This appeal was decided by an opinion issued on December 22, 2016, 150 A.3d 1213. This amended opinion adds a new footnote 39 and revises former footnote 45 (now 46).
Thanks for the correction. (Mike Frisch)