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Todd Bartley v. Sharon Taylor

June 21, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane


Presently pending before the Court is Defendant's motion for partial summary judgment. (Doc. No. 10.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated more fully herein, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny the motion in part.


In this civil rights action filed by Plaintiff Todd Bartley, the general manager and lead investigative sports reporter for ESPN 1050, a sports programming radio station located in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Bartley alleges that Defendant Sharon Taylor violated his First Amendment rights by suing him in state court and by using her position as the athletic director at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania ("LHU") to deny him certain access and privileges, all because he exercised his First Amendment rights. (Doc. No. 11 ¶¶ 1-3; Doc. No. 16 ¶¶ 1-3; see also Doc. No. 1 ¶ 11.) In the underlying lawsuit, Taylor alleged that Bartley and other individuals published defamatory statements about her and conspired to injure her reputation. (Doc. No. 11 ¶¶ 4-5; Doc. No. 16 ¶¶ 4-6; Doc. No. 11-1.) According to Taylor, Bartley was involved in the organization, Preserve the Legacy of Wrestling ("PLOW"), sent an email to the LHU board of directors criticizing her, and shared this email with PLOW members. (Doc. No. 11 ¶¶ 4, 6-7.) She further avers that PLOW members publicly distributed a pamphlet containing false statements about her and that Bartley obtained records and emails from LHU demonstrating that these statements were false. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 10.) Taylor also alleges that Bartley published an article on the ESPN 1050 website under the headline, "Taylor and LHU Lose Another Court Battle," the body of which referred to a federal civil action in which she was not a party. (Id. ¶¶ 11-13.) According to Bartley, he never was a member of PLOW, never participated in the distribution of pamphlets containing statements about Taylor, and the online article he published was not libelous. (Doc. No. 16 ¶¶ 7-14.) Bartley filed a motion for summary judgment in the state court proceeding, and the state court entered summary judgment in his favor, finding that the article related to the "court battle" was not libelous and that Taylor had produced insufficient evidence of Bartley's participation in a conspiracy to submit the case to a jury. (Doc. No. 11-3.)


Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that summary judgment is warranted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A factual dispute is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law, and it is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). At summary judgment, the inquiry is whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law. Id. at 251-52. In making this determination, the Court must "consider all evidence in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." A.W. v. Jersey City Pub. Schs., 486 F.3d 791, 794 (3d Cir. 2007).

The moving party has the initial burden of identifying evidence that it believes shows an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Conoshenti v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 364 F.3d 135, 145-46 (3d Cir. 2004). Once the moving party has shown that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's claims, "the non-moving party must rebut the motion with facts in the record and cannot rest solely on assertions made in the pleadings, legal memoranda, or oral argument." Berckeley Inv. Grp.. Ltd. v. Colkitt, 455 F.3d 195, 201 (3d Cir. 2006); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). If the non-moving party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial," summary judgment is warranted. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. With respect to the sufficiency of the evidence that the non-moving party must provide, a court should grant summary judgment where the non-movant's evidence is merely colorable, conclusory, or speculative. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. There must be more than a scintilla of evidence supporting the non-moving party and more than some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Id. at 252; see also Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).


In her motion for partial summary judgment, Taylor asserts that the Noerr-Pennington doctrine bars Bartley's First Amendment retaliation claim to the extent that it is based on the lawsuit she filed against him in the Court of Common Pleas of Clinton County. (Doc. No. 12 at 7-11.) Additionally, Taylor contends that the doctrine of sovereign immunity bars Bartley's state law claims. (Id. at 12-14.) The Court will address each contention in turn.

A. First Amendment Retaliation Claim

In his complaint, Bartley alleges that Taylor was angered by his reporting on her job performance as the LHU athletic director and that she retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment by, inter alia, filing a frivolous lawsuit against him in state court. (Doc. No. 1 ¶¶ 8, 11.) Taylor contends that Bartley's claim, to the extent that it is based on the underlying lawsuit, fails as a matter of law because the Noerr-Pennington doctrine immunizes individuals who petition the Government for redress of grievances. (Doc. No. 12 at 7.)

The Noerr-Pennington doctrine is grounded in the First Amendment guarantee of the right to access the courts and holds that individuals who petition the Government for redress of grievances are generally immune from antitrust liability even if their petitions are motivated by anticompetitive liability. See United Mine Workers v. Pennington, 381 U.S. 657 (1965); E. R.R. Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc., 365 U.S. 127, 144 (1961). Courts have held that the Noerr-Pennington doctrine is not limited to the antitrust context and "applies equally in all contexts." White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214, 1231 (9th Cir. 2000); see also Bryant v. Military Dep't of the State of Miss., 597 F.3d 678, 690 (5th Cir. 2010); Herr v. Pequea Twp., 274 F.3d 109, 116, 119 (3d Cir. 2001) (questioned on other grounds by United Artists Theatre Circuit, Inc. v. Twp. of Warrington, 316 F.3d 392, 400 (3d Cir. 2003)) ("[P]rinciples relied upon [under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine are] not limited to antitrust liability."). Thus, the doctrine reinforces an individual's First Amendment right to petition the courts by filing certain lawsuits. See Cal. Motor Trans. Co. v. Trucking Unlimited, 404 U.S. 508, 510-11 (1972); Herr, 274 F.3d at 115.

"Baseless litigation," however, "is not immunized by the First Amendment right to petition." Bill Johnson's Rests. v. NLRB, 461 U.S. 731, 743 (1983). Thus, the Noerr-

Pennington doctrine does not immunize individuals who initiate "sham" litigation. See Prof'l Real Estate Investors, Inc. v. Columbia Pictures Indus., Inc., 508 U.S. 49, 56 (1993). "[D]etermining what litigation is 'sham' or 'baseless' requires the drawing of a 'difficult line' to separate objectively reasonable claims from a 'pattern of baseless, repetitive claims . . . which leads the fact-finder to conclude that the . . . judicial process[] [has] been abused." Bryant, 597 F.3d at 690 (quoting Cal. Motor Transp., 404 U.S. at 513). In Professional Real Estate Investors, Inc., the United States Supreme Court held that "an objectively ...

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