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Paul Duffy and Prenda Law, Inc. v. Godfread

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

April 9, 2015

PAUL DUFFY and PRENDA LAW, INC., Plaintiffs,
v.
PAUL GODFREAD, ALAN COOPER, and JOHN DOES 1-10, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JOHN W. DARRAH, District Judge.

Plaintiffs, Paul Duffy and Prenda Law, Inc., filed suit against Defendants Paul Godfread, Alan Cooper, and ten John Doe Defendants in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, on February 15, 2013. Godfread and Cooper removed this action to the Northern District of Illinois on February 28, 2013, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1332(a), on the basis of complete diversity among the parties. On April 16, 2013, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to the Minnesota Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) Act. That motion was denied on August 14, 2013, because Godfread and Cooper failed "to make a threshold showing that Duffy's claims of their defamation involved public participation or were otherwise aimed in whole or in part at procuring favorable government action.'" (Dkt. No. 28 at p. 8.) Defendants renewed their Motion to Dismiss Pursuit to the Minnesota Anti-SLAPP Act on October 30, 2014. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Renewed Motion to Dismiss [67] is granted.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are taken from the Complaint, which is accepted as true for purposes of resolving the Motions to Dismiss. See Reger Dev., LLC v. Nat'l City Bank, 592 F.3d 759, 763 (7th Cir. 2010.) According to the Complaint, Duffy is the sole officer of Prenda Law, Inc. ("Prenda"), a law corporation with its principal place of business in Chicago, Illinois. (Compl. ¶ 5.) Godfread is a Minnesota attorney. (Id. at ¶ 6.) Cooper is a Minnesota citizen and a client of Godfread. (Id. at ¶ 7.)

Prenda pursues civil claims for copyright infringement and for computer hacking. (Id. at ¶¶ 13, 25.) In his Complaint, Duffy lists sixty-six examples of purportedly libelous statements posted on the Internet about Prenda and its agents, including Duffy. (Id. at ¶¶ 33-99.) Duffy asserts Godfread and Cooper made allegations in a complaint filed in the District Court for the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Minnesota that are patently false. (Id. at ¶¶ 6-7.) Duffy further alleges that these false and defamatory statements from the complaint appeared on Internet websites before the Minnesota complaint was filed. (Id. at ¶ 6.)

The Minnesota complaint identifies Cooper as a plaintiff, represented by Godfread, and sues John Steele; Prenda Law, Inc.; AF Holdings, LLC; and Ingenuity 13, LLC. (Notice of Removal, Ex. B.) Duffy asserts eight claims against Defendants: (1) libel per se by making false allegations of criminal offenses; (2) libel per se by making false allegations of Duffy's (and Prenda's) want of integrity in his employment; (3) libel per se by making false allegations imputing Duffy's (and Prenda's) lack of ability in the legal profession; (4) libel per se by making false allegations of Duffy (and Prenda's agents) committing fornication and adultery; (5) false light and defamation; (6) tortious interference with contractual relationships; (7) tortious interference with a prospective business relationship; and (8) civil conspiracy.

LEGAL STANDARD

Rule 12(b)(6) permits a defendant to move to dismiss a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Facial plausibility exists when the court can "draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). All well-pleaded allegations are presumed to be true, and all inferences are read in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Lavalais v. Village of Melrose Park, 734 F.3d 629, 632 (7th Cir. 2013). This presumption is not extended to "legal conclusions, or threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.'" Alam v. Miller Brewing Co., 709 F.3d 662, 666 (7th Cir. 2013) (quoting Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 581 (7th Cir. 2009)). Rather, the complaint must provide a defendant "with fair notice' of the claim and its basis." Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) and Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

Plaintiffs failed to respond to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, despite being given multiple chances to do so. "Our system of justice is adversarial, and our judges are busy people. If they are given plausible reasons for dismissing a complaint, they are not going to do the plaintiff's research and try to discover whether there might be something to say against the defendants' reasoning. An unresponsive response is no response." Kirksey v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 168 F.3d 1039, 1041 (7th Cir. 1999).

ANALYSIS

Defendants move to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to the Minnesota Anti-SLAPP Act. The Minnesota Anti-SLAPP Act "applies to any motion in a judicial proceeding to dispose of a judicial claim on the grounds that the claim materially relates to an act of the moving party that involves public participation." MINN. STAT. § 554.02, Subd. 1. Public participation is defined as "speech or lawful conduct that is genuinely aimed in whole or in part at procuring favorable government action." MINN. STAT. § 554.01, Subd. 6. Speech aimed at procuring "favorable government action" is protected speech, unless the speech is tortious or violates an individual's constitutional rights. MINN. STAT. § 554.03. In his Complaint, Duffy asserts that "Godfread has made both written and oral statements to Plaintiff and its agents that are libelous with respect to Plaintiff... [and] those statements have appeared, or been incorporated, in comments on... Internet sites...." (Compl. ¶ 6.) These defamatory statements, Duffy alleges, were provided to Godfread by Cooper, and "[a]s such, Cooper's false statements, when published to third parties, constitute defamation per se. " (Compl. ¶ 7.)

Public Participation

Initially, "[t]he defendant bears a minimal burden' of making a threshold showing that the plaintiff's underlying claim materially relates to an act of the defendant's that involved public participation." Nexus v. Swift, 785 N.W.2d 771, 782 (Minn.Ct.App. 2010) (citing Middle-Snake-Tamarac Rivers Watershed Dist. v. Stengrim, 784 N.W.2d 834, 841 (Minn. 2010)). Though no published case has addressed the subject, the Court of Appeals of Minnesota has upheld a district court's ruling that public participation can take place through the judicial branch. Leiendecker v. Asian Women United of Minnesota, No. A12-1978, 2014 WL 7011061, at *3 (Minn.Ct.App. Dec. 15, 2014), review denied (Feb. 25, 2015). Thus, any statements stemming from the lawsuit and complaint that Defendants filed in Minnesota would be immune from suit. Those statements are clearly speech aimed at procuring a favorable government action.

However, "the mere fact that discrete communications are made in the context of public participation does not confer immunity." Freeman v. Swift, 776 N.W.2d 485, 490 (Minn.Ct.App. 2009). Whether statements are immune from suit under the anti-SLAPP statute "depends on the nature of the statement, the purpose of the statement, and the intended audience." Id. Statements "aimed at creating ill-will" towards individuals involved in a public controversy "cannot be said to have been genuinely aimed' at procuring favorable government action." Id. at 491. The Internet posts referenced in Plaintiff's Complaint are not genuinely aimed at procuring favorable government action. The nature of the statements is largely deriding the conduct and professionalism of Prenda and Duffy, among others. The intended audience is other ...


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