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Coleman v. Cauliflower Alley Club Inc.

United States District Court, D. Arizona

July 30, 2019

Eldridge Wayne Coleman, Plaintiff,
v.
Cauliflower Alley Club Incorporated, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          Honorable John J. Tuchi, United States District Judge.

         At issue is Defendant Cauliflower Alley Club's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 6, Mot.), to which Plaintiff Eldridge Wayne Coleman filed a Response (Doc. 10, Resp.), and Defendant filed a Reply (Doc. 12, Reply).

         Plaintiff is a former professional wrestler who used the name “Superstar Billy Graham” and, at the time of the events giving rise to this suit, was a member of Defendant organization. (Doc. 1-3, Compl. ¶ 10; Mot. at 1-2.) Defendant is a nonprofit organization whose membership consists partially of current and former professional wrestlers and whose mission is to financially assist former wrestlers during difficult financial times. (Compl. ¶ 10; Mot. at 1-2.)

         In the Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that the organization's President, Mr. Brian Blair, “falsely accused Plaintiff of having absconded on hotel charges and fees of over $17, 000.00 in connection with [Defendant's] convention in Las Vegas.” (Compl. ¶ 16.) Plaintiff refers to the following statement written by Mr. Blair and posted to his Facebook account:

Talk about the ungrateful person SBGis! He received over $17, 000 of assistance from the CAC, and that is documented. While at the CAC Reunion in Vegas, he left all of his expenses for the CAC to pay & after all of that, he never said Thank you to anyone. Karl Lauer has all the records to reflect these comments. Why he would want to call me names, after he has received so much financial assistance in the past, and because we had/have many others that had never received financial aid before apply, [sic] he wants to blasphemy me! There are many Petty fools in life and it seems as if Billy has turned into one. I don't know if he's senile or what his reasoning is to use such explicit adjectives and to berate someone (me), that has given countless hours of time, to assist so many other colleagues in need. Mr. Graham's language and actions are as childish as I've ever seen in my life. I certainly hope Mr [sic] Graham gets well both mentally and physically! Sincerely, BBB[.]

(Compl. ¶ 19, Ex. 2.)

         Plaintiff alleges that Mr. Blair's statement was “made with actual malice” because he “knew [it] to be false” or “acted with a reckless disregard as to [its] truth.” (Compl. ¶ 18.) Plaintiff ultimately claims that this statement constitutes libel per se because it “falsely impeach[es] [his] honesty, integrity and reputation.” (Compl. ¶ 20.) Defendant now moves to dismiss for failure to state a claim. (Mot. at 1.)

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         When analyzing a complaint for failure to state a claim for relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the well-pled factual allegations are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Cousins v. Lockyer, 568 F.3d 1063, 1067 (9th Cir. 2009). Legal conclusions couched as factual allegations are not entitled to the assumption of truth, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 680 (2009), and therefore are insufficient to defeat a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. In re Cutera Sec. Litig., 610 F.3d 1103, 1108 (9th Cir. 2010).

         A dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim can be based on either (1) the lack of a cognizable legal theory or (2) insufficient facts to support a cognizable legal claim. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). “While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (citations omitted). The complaint must thus contain “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “[A] well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that ‘recovery is very remote and unlikely.'” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556 (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Defendant argues that the statement at issue “is not defamatory . . . under existing constitutional law and Arizona law” because it “does not impeach Plaintiff's character and is hyperbole . . . incapable of being proven false.” (Mot. at 5.) Defendant contends that “the statement that Plaintiff ‘received over $17, 000 of assistance' would not be interpreted by a reasonable person as referring to an unpaid hotel bill” and therefore cannot be defamatory. (Reply at 2.) Plaintiff, however, interprets the statement to imply that he “ran up $17, 000 in expenses” at the convention and “left without paying them, ” and he argues that this “goes to the heart of his honesty, integrity, virtue and reputation.” (Resp. at 3.)

         Under Arizona law, “[t]o be defamatory, a publication must be false and must bring the defamed person into disrepute, contempt, or ridicule, or must impeach plaintiff's honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation.” Reynolds v. Reynolds, 294 P.3d 151, 155 (Ariz.Ct.App. 2013) (quoting Turner v. Devlin, 848 P.2d 286, 288-289 (Ariz. 1993)). A statement is false where it “reasonably appear[s] to state or imply assertions of objective fact” that actually are untrue. Yetman v. English, 811 P.2d 323, 328 (Ariz. 1991). In making a falsity inquiry, courts must at times look beyond a statement's literal meaning because “literal words of challenged statements do not entitle a [] defendant to opinion hyperbole immunity.” Id. (internal quotation omitted). Courts must instead “consider the impression created by the words used as well as the general tenor of the expression, from the point of view of the reasonable person” in order to determine whether the statement could be construed as fact. Id. Ultimately, the “threshold question” is “whether a reasonable factfinder could conclude that the statement implies an assertion of objective fact.” Unelko Corp. v. Rooney, 912 F.2d 1049, 1053 (9th Cir. 1990) (internal quotations omitted).

         In addition to being false, alleged defamation must actually be defamatory-that is, it “must bring the defamed person into disrepute . . . or must impeach [his] honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation.” Reynolds, 294 P.3d at 155. In deciding whether a statement is defamatory, the Court determines, as a matter of law, whether a statement is “capable of bearing” the meaning alleged by the plaintiff, and, if so, “whether that meaning is defamatory.” Id. (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 614(1) (Am. Law Inst. 1977)). If both questions are answered “in the affirmative, ” a jury must then decide “whether the communication was in fact understood by its recipient in the defamatory sense.” Burns v. Davis, 993 P.2d 1119, 1129 (Ariz.Ct.App. 1999). In determining whether an alleged meaning is defamatory, Arizona courts have held that “[t]he meaning of words and statements should not be construed in ...


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