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Huon v. Denton

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

November 14, 2016

Meanith Huon, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Nick Denton, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued May 31, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 11 CV 3054 - John J. Tharp, Jr. Judge.

          Before Easterbrook and Williams, Circuit Judges, and Yandle, District Judge. [*]

          Williams, Circuit Judge.

          Meanith Huon sued the website Above the Law for implying that he was a rapist in an article published on the same day he was acquitted of rape. When another website, Jezebel (which was owned by Gawker at the time), reported on the lawsuit in an article entitled, "Acquitted Rapist Sues Blog for Calling Him Serial Rapist, " Hu-on added Gawker to the lawsuit. He accused Gawker of defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress with regard to (i) the article's headline, (ii) its description of Huon's criminal trial and subsequent complaint against Above the Law, and (iii) certain comments posted by a number of anonymous third-party users (at least some of whom Huon claimed were Gawker employees). The district judge granted Gawker's motion to dismiss as to all of Huon's claims, and later denied him leave to file a fifth amended complaint. Huon appeals both decisions.

         We conclude that the district judge correctly rejected Huon's defamation claim as to the article. The title can be construed innocently when viewed with the rest of the article as a whole, and the article's text fairly reported on both Huon's criminal trial and his initial complaint against Above the Law. In addition, the district judge did not err in denying Huon leave to file a fifth amended complaint, since Huon had ample opportunity to cure any deficiencies.

         However, we reverse and remand the district judge's rejection of Huon's defamation claim as to the third-party user comments. Huon adequately alleged that Gawker helped create and develop at least some of the comments, and one of the comments constitutes defamation under Illinois law. We also reverse and remand the district judge's rejection of Huon's false-light and intentional-infliction claims, which were dismissed against Gawker based solely on the rejection of his defamation claims. Since part of his defamation claim can proceed, so too can his false-light and intentional-infliction claims.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In July 2008, Plaintiff Meanith Huon was charged with criminal sexual assault in connection with a sexual encounter he had with Jane Doe. Huon pleaded not guilty, claimed that the encounter was consensual, and was acquitted by a jury. On the day Huon was acquitted, the legal website Above the Law (ATL) published an article entitled, "Rape Potpourri" (ATL article). The article discussed two "rape stories, " one of which concerned Jane Doe's allegations and Huon's opening statement at his criminal trial. At some point after its initial publication, the ATL article was updated to note that Huon was acquitted.

         One year after publication of the ATL article, Huon filed suit against ATL, alleging defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false light invasion of privacy. Several days later, the website Jezebel published an article entitled, "Acquitted Rapist Sues Blog for Calling Him Serial Rapist" (Jezebel article). The article superimposed Huon's 2008 mugshot onto the ATL article and briefly explained the circumstances of Huon's criminal trial and subsequent lawsuit against ATL. The article's title was later changed to read, "Man Acquitted of Sexual Assault Sues Blog for Calling Him Serial Rapist" (emphasis added), but otherwise remained the same. The Jezebel article generated over 80 comments from anonymous third-party users.

         Huon amended his complaint in response to the publication of the Jezebel article, adding several new allegations and nearly a dozen new defendants, including Irin Carmon, the Jezebel article's author; Gawker Media, Jezebel's then-owner; and Nick Denton, Gawker's founder (Gawker Defendants[1]). After Huon amended his complaint several additional times to cure certain jurisdictional defects, the Gawker Defendants moved to dismiss Huon's fourth amended complaint.

         The district judge granted the motion in full. He rejected Huon's defamation claims as to the third-party user comments, finding insufficient allegations that Gawker employees had actually authored the comments, and concluding that the Communications Decency Act protects online publishers like Gawker from third-party comments. The judge also dismissed Huon's defamation per se claim, finding that the Article's headline was protected by the innocent construction rule and its text by the fair report privilege, and concluded that Huon had failed to plead the requisite special damages to maintain his defamation per quod claim. In addition, the judge dismissed Huon's false-light and intentional-infliction claims, noting that the failure of his defamation claims was dispositive. The district judge later denied Huon's motion to reconsider and for leave to file a fifth amended complaint. This appeal followed.[2]

          II. ANALYSIS

         We review de novo the district judge's grant of the Gawker Defendants' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008). A complaint need only contain enough factual content to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2009). While "detailed factual allegations" are not required, the complaint must contain more than mere "labels and conclusions" and "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). We review the complaint in the light most favorable to Huon and accept all well-pleaded facts as true. Tamayo, 526 F.3d at 1081.

         A. Jezebel Article's Title and Content Defamation Claim Properly Dismissed

         A statement is defamatory under Illinois law if "it tends to harm a person's reputation to the extent that it lowers that person in the eyes of the community or deters others from associating with that person." Tuite v. Corbitt, 866 N.E.2d 114, 121 (111. 2006). The per se designation applies if the statement's "defamatory character is obvious and apparent on its face and injury to the plaintiff's reputation may be presumed." Id. A statement will usually constitute defamation per se if it falls into one of five categories; the only one at issue here concerns "statements imputing the commission of a crime." Id.

         On appeal, Huon contends that two aspects of the Jezebel article constituted defamation per se: (1) the headline and adjacent graphic containing his mug shot, to which the district judge applied the innocent construction rule; and (2) the article's description of the criminal trial and subsequent civil suit, to which the judge applied the fair report privilege. We consider each issue in turn.[3]

         1. Innocent Construction Rule Applies to Headline and Graphic

         A statement that is defamatory per se will not be actionable "if it is reasonably capable of an innocent construction." Green v. Rogers, 917 N.E.2d 450, 463 (111. 2009). Under this rule, a court must give the defendant's words their natural and obvious meaning, after having considered "both the substance of defendant's alleged statements and the context in which they allegedly were made." Id. at 464. "[I]f a statement is capable of two reasonable constructions, one defamatory and one innocent, the innocent one will prevail." Muzikowski v. Paramount Pictures Corp., 322 F.3d 918, 925 (7th Cir. 2003) (citing Anderson v. Vanden Dorpel, 667 N.E.2d 1296, 1302 (111. 1996)). Nevertheless, "when the defendant clearly intended and unmistakably conveyed a defamatory meaning, a court should not strain to see an inoffensive gloss on the statement." Green, 917 N.E.2d at 463.

         Here, Huon maintains that the Jezebel article's headline, "Acquitted Rapist Sues Blog For Calling Him Serial Rapist, " is defamatory because it imputes to him the commission of a crime (rape), and is not subject to an innocent construction.

          According to Huon, the most reasonable meaning of the headline is that Huon has committed rape at least once, and that the word "acquitted, " by itself, does not controvert this false insinuation.

         We need not decide whether the headline itself defamed Huon because, even if it did, it is subject to an innocent construction. As the Gawker Defendants correctly note, headlines must be considered alongside the accompanying article and not in isolation. See, e.g., Harrison v. Chi. Sun-Times, Inc., 793 N.E.2d 760, 772 (111. App. Ct. 2003) ("As a general rule in applying the innocent construction rule, a newspaper headline and the text of the article to which it refers are to be considered as one document and read together as a whole."); accord Solaia Tech., LLC v. Specialty Pub. Co., 852 N.E.2d 825, 846 (111. 2006); Seith v. Chi. Sun-Times, Inc., 861 N.E.2d 1117, 1127 (111. App. Ct. 2007); cf. Tuite, 866 N.E.2d at 127-28 (examining allegedly defamatory statements in the context of the entire book in which they were published); Bryson v. News Am. Publ'ns, Inc., 672 N.E.2d 1207, 1217 (111. 1996) (examining allegedly defamatory word in magazine article alongside the adjacent sentences).

         Huon argues that "[h]eadlines alone may be enough to make libelous per se an otherwise innocuous article, " but the small handful of cases he relies on are unhelpful. All of them involve the laws of states other than Illinois, and many are distinguishable on their facts insofar as the allegedly defamatory front-page headline was not next to the underlying article. See Solano v. Playgirl, Inc., 292 F.3d 1078, 1083-84 (9th Cir. 2002) (emphasizing that "the magazine is displayed for sale in plastic wrapping, making the cover the key to what a reader can expect to find inside the magazine"); Kaelin v. Globe Commc'ns Corp., 162 F.3d 1036, 1041 (9th Cir. 1998) (concluding that a reasonable jury could find that the magazine article "was too far removed [17 pages] from the cover headline to have the salutary effect that [defendant] claims"). Here, in contrast, the complaint indicates that the headline and article were directly adjacent to one another.

         The content of the underlying Jezebel article makes clear that the only instance of alleged rape was the one Huon was acquitted of. Indeed, one need only read the first sentence to see that this is so: "A Chicago man who was acquitted on a sexual assault charge is suing the legal blog Above The Law for implying that he's a serial rapist." And two paragraphs later, after having discussed Huon's acquittal, the article explains that ATL "mistakenly believes that news accounts of the same incident are different incidents that should have tipped the woman off that Huon was a serial offender." (emphasis added).

         Huon also contends the graphic containing his mugshot and the phrases "Above the Law" and "Rape Potpourri" constitutes defamation per se. We disagree. Above the Law was the name of the website that Huon had sued, "Rape Potpourri" was the headline of the ATL article, and the mugshot illustrated the subject matter at issue. So the innocent ...

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