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Hosszu v. Barrett

United States District Court, D. Arizona

August 12, 2016

Katinka Hosszu, Plaintiff,
Casey Barrett, et al., Defendants.


          Honorable G. Murray Snow United States District Judge.

         Pending before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss by Defendants. (Doc. 26.) For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion.


         Katinka Hosszu (“Hosszu”) is a world-famous professional swimmer. (Compl. ¶ 4.) A three-time[1] Olympian, five-time World Champion, and Hungarian Sportswoman of the Year, Hosszu enjoys a generous backing from corporate and athletic equipment sponsors. (Id.) She has a large fan base and is a national source of pride for her native Hungary. (Id.)

         On May 20th, 2015, former Olympic swimmer and swim commentator Casey Barrett posted an article entitled The Smell of Smoke on his blog, Cap & Goggles, and Swimming World Magazine (“SWM”) published a substantially similar version of his article entitled Are Katinka Hosszu’s Performances Being Aided? (collectively, “the May 20th article”).[2] (Compl. ¶ 32.) Hosszu alleges that the May 20th article published false “assertions of fact” which accuse her of using performance-enhancing drugs to achieve her success. (Compl. ¶ 33, 48.)

         However, both parties stipulate that Barrett repeatedly conceded in the May 20tharticle that he did not have any proof, such as failed drug tests, to demonstrate that Hosszu ever used performance-enhancing drugs. Instead, Hosszu alleges that the May 20th article accuses her of using performance-enhancing drugs by discussing her remarkable comeback after the 2012 Olympic Games, as well as her unusual ability to recover quickly in between events.

         Hosszu further alleges that on August 3, 2015, Barrett published an article entitled Women Rule the Worlds, which republished the May 20th article’s defamatory statements. (Compl. ¶ 44.) Hosszu further claims that Barrett and SWM collaborated to publish at least two other articles entitled Doping: How to Not Get Caught and Suspicious Minds and the Doping Rumor Mill about performance-enhancing drug abuse which are “reasonably understood to refer to Hosszu.” (Compl. ¶ 45.)

         Hosszu alleges that Barrett, SWM, and Does 1-20 (“Defendants”) harmed her reputation and caused the public and others to hold her in contempt. (Compl. ¶ 49.) She claims that sponsors discontinued backing her, that she has been subjected to heightened drug testing, and that she is questioned about the “doping allegations” at every interview. (Compl. ¶¶ 38-39.) Hosszu brings claims for defamation and false light.


         I. Legal Standard

         To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “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, 556 U.S. at 678. “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.

         “[T]he tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Id. “When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. at 679. “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id.

         II. Analysis

         “[T]o survive [a] motion to dismiss, [a plaintiff] must not only establish that the [statements] about which [she] complain[s] are reasonably capable of sustaining a defamatory meaning, [she] must also show that they are not mere comment within the ambit of the First Amendment.” Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1073-74 (9th Cir. 2005) (internal citation omitted). “Although defamation is primarily governed by state law, the First Amendment safeguards for freedom of speech and press limit state law.” Underwager v. Channel 9 Australia, 69 F.3d 361, 366 (9th Cir. 1995). “The scope of constitutional protection extends to statements of opinion on matters of public concern that do not contain or imply a provable factual assertion.” Id. (citing Milkovich v. Lorain J. Co.,497 U.S. 1, 20 (1990)). Because “expressions of ‘opinion’ may often imply an assertion of objective fact, ” there is no “wholesale defamation exemption for anything that might be labeled ‘opinion.’” Milkovich, 497 U.S. at 18. For example, “[i]f a speaker says, “In my opinion John Jones is a liar, ” he implies a knowledge of facts which lead to the conclusion that Jones told an untruth.” Id. ...

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