IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
June 4, 2010
JAROMIR KOVARIK, PLAINTIFF
JOSEPH DOWNEY, DEFENDANT
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner
Plaintiff Jaromir Kovarik ("Kovarik") brings this diversity action sounding in defamation, accusing defendant Joseph Downey ("Downey") of uttering false and derogatory statements in violation of Pennsylvania state law. In addition, Kovarik seeks to enforce a judgment for money damages issued by a magisterial district court in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. Presently before the court is Downey's motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. (See Doc. 5.) For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.
I. Statement of Facts*fn1
The allegations contained in the complaint date back to October 11, 2008,
when Kovarik purchased a 2004 Subaru Outback from Downey's business, Downey Auto Repair, located in Pawling, New York. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 5, 8.) After the purchase was complete, Kovarik allegedly discovered defects to the automobile's frame and demanded that Downey refund the costs of repair. (Id. ¶ 9-10.) Downey refused, prompting Kovarik to file a complaint in the magisterial district court in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶ 10.)
A hearing on the dispute commenced on April 7, 2009. (Id. ¶ 11.) Kovarik was represented at this proceeding by Jennifer Wentzel, Esquire ("Attorney Wentzel"), while Downey appeared pro se. (See id. ¶¶ 13-14.) During his argument to the court, Downey asserted, inter alia, that Kovarik caused the damage to the vehicle himself. (Id. ¶ 14.) The court rejected these contentions, entered judgment in Kovarik's favor, and ordered Downey liable for the sum of $6,339.50. (See id. ¶ 34.) At the conclusion of the proceeding-and after the parties had vacated the courtroom-Downey approached Attorney Wentzel and accused Kovarik of both damaging the vehicle and lying to the court. (Id. ¶ 17.) Kovarik later requested that Downey retract his allegations, but Downey refused. (Id. ¶ 18.)
Kovarik commenced the instant suit by filing a complaint on August 26, 2009. (Doc. 1.) He alleges that Downey committed slander per se and requests special damages and a permanent injunction prohibiting Downey from levying accusatory statements regarding the underlying automobile dispute. Additionally, Kovarik requests that the court enforce the money judgment entered on April 7, 2009 by the magisterial district judge. On September 22, 2009, Downey filed a motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (See Doc. 5.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.
II. Standard of Review
Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Gelman v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 583 F.3d 187, 190 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)); see also Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)). Although the court is generally limited in its review to the facts contained in the complaint, it "may also consider matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case." Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).
Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide "the defendant notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint in the face of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must conduct a two-step inquiry. In the first step, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated; well-pleaded facts must be accepted as true, while mere legal conclusions may be disregarded. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Once the well-pleaded factual allegations have been isolated, the court must determine whether they are sufficient to show a "plausible claim for relief." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, --- U.S. ---, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (requiring plaintiffs to allege facts sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level"). A claim "has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, --- U.S. at ---, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. When the complaint fails to establish defendant liability, however, courts should generally grant plaintiffs leave to amend their claims before dismissing a complaint that is merely deficient. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000).
In the present motion, Downey moves to dismiss Kovarik's cause of action for slander per se for failure to state a claim. Downey also seeks dismissal of Kovarik's demand for a permanent injunction and his request to enforce the state-court money judgment. The court will address each of these matters seriatim.
"Defamation, of which libel, slander, and invasion of privacy are methods, is the tort of detracting from a person's reputation, or injuring a person's character, fame, or reputation, by false and malicious statements." Joseph v. Scranton Times L.P., 959 A.2d 322, 334 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2008); see also Morrison v. Nat'l Broad. Co., 227 N.E.2d 572, 574 (N.Y. Ct. App. 1967). A slanderous communication is a spoken or transitory form of defamation "intended to lower the view of the target of the communication in the community or... to deter third persons from associating with the target." Reardon v. Allegheny Coll., 926 A.2d 477, 484 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007); see also Idema v. Wager, 120 F. Supp. 2d 361, 365 (S.D.N.Y. 2000). To establish a prima facie claim of slander, a plaintiff must establish: (1) the defamatory character of the communication; (2) its publication by the defendant; (3) its application to the plaintiff; (4) the understanding by the recipient of its defamatory meaning; (5) the understanding by the recipient of it as intended to be applied to the plaintiff; (6) special harm resulting to the plaintiff from its publication; and (7) abuse of a conditionally privileged occasion. 42 PA. CONS. STAT. § 8343; see also Weldy v. Piedmont Airlines, Inc., 985 F.2d 57, 61-62 (2d Cir. 1993). However, if the communication in question "ascribes to another conduct, character, or a condition that would adversely affect his fitness for the proper conduct of his business, trade, or profession, [then it] is defamatory per se" and special harm need not be proved. Pelagatti v. Cohen, 536 A.2d 1337, 1345 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1987); see also Liberman v. Gelstein, 605 N.E.2d 344, 347-48 (N.Y. Ct. App. 1992). When presented with a purportedly slanderous communication, "[i]t is the function of the court to determine whether the challenged [communication] is capable of defamatory meaning." Tucker v. Phila. Daily News, 848 A.2d 113, 124 (Pa. 2004); see also Fordham v. Islip Union Free Sch. Dist., 662 F. Supp. 2d 261, 274 (E.D.N.Y. 2009) (internal quotations omitted).
In the matter sub judice, Downey allegedly approached Attorney Wentzel after the conclusion of court proceedings and accused Kovarik of dishonest conduct and of intentionally causing damage to the recently-sold 2004 Subaru Outback. (See Doc. 1 ¶ 17.) Downey does not question the defamatory nature of his comments, but instead claims that his statements are protected by an absolute privilege to speak freely during and in relation to legal proceedings. It is, of course, true that "all communications pertinent to any stage of a judicial proceeding are accorded an absolute privilege which cannot be destroyed by abuse." Smith v. Griffiths, 476 A.2d 22, 423 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1984) (quoting Binder v. Triangle Publ'ns, Inc., 275 A.2d 53, 56 (Pa. 1971)); see also Bernstein v. Seeman, 593 F. Supp. 2d 630, 636 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). Moreover, this privilege is not limited to judges and attorneys, but also extends to both parties to the suit and witnesses. See Binder, 275 A.2d at 56 (explaining that "statements by a party, a witness, counsel, or a judge cannot be the basis of a defamation action whether they occur in the pleadings or in open court"); see also Park Knoll Assocs. v. Schmidt, 451 N.E.2d 182, 184-85 (N.Y. Ct. App. 1983).
When a lawsuit participant's potentially defamatory comments are transmitted outside of the courtroom or pleadings, however, the privilege extends protection only to those statements "which are issued in the regular course of judicial proceedings and which are pertinent and material to the redress or relief sought." Post v. Mendel, 507 A.2d 351, 355 (Pa. 1986) (emphasis in original); see also Bernstein, 593 F. Supp. 2d at 636. Thus, communications made during preliminary conferences, negotiations, and in routine correspondence may be privileged, provided the statements are directly relevant to the lawsuit and its claims.*fn3 See Pelagatti, 536 A.2d at 1344; Aequitron Med., Inc. v. Dyro, 999 F. Supp. 294, 297-98 (E.D.N.Y. 1998). Here, Downey allegedly accused Kovarik of being dishonest and of damaging the automobile. Even if the latter statement is somewhat relevant to the parties' in-court dispute, the purported attack on Kovarik's veracity is not pertinent and material to the redress sought. See Post, 507 A.2d at 355 (finding counsel-to- counsel correspondence unprivileged when it contained accusations that plaintiff was dishonest during prior court proceeding). Development of the factual record may add context or content to the exchange which occurred between Downey and Attorney Wentzel, but at this juncture, the court is unable to conclude that Downey's comments were privileged. Accordingly, the motion to dismiss will be denied.*fn4
B. Enforcement of State-Court Judgment
In Count Three of the complaint, Kovarik seeks incorporation of a money judgment rendered by the magisterial district court in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. Downey argues that this request must be dismissed, for there is not yet a valid state-court judgment to enforce. Specifically, Downey claims that he has appealed the order of the magisterial district court to the Lebanon Court of Common Pleas, which thereby entitles him to a de novo trial on the merits before entry of final judgment. Kovarik disputes this assertion and contends that Downey's notice of appeal was improperly served, a defect which purportedly renders the attempt to appeal ineffective. The court has examined the public court records proffered by the parties and it is unclear whether Downey properly filed and served his notice of appeal. Thus, this is a dispute that cannot be resolved in the Rule 12 posture, but is more appropriate for adjudication at a later juncture.*fn5 Accordingly, Downey's motion to dismiss Count Three of the complaint will be denied.
For the foregoing reasons, Kovarik has adequately stated a claim for slander under Pennsylvania state law. In addition, Downey's motion to dismiss the request for permanent injunction and to enforce the magisterial district court judgment will be denied.
An appropriate order follows.
CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER United States District Judge
AND NOW, this 4th day of June, 2010, upon consideration of the motion (Doc. 5) to dismiss, filed by defendant Joseph Downey, and for the reasons set forth in the accompanying memorandum, it is hereby ORDERED that the motion (Doc. 5) is DENIED.