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Hobgood v. Hearst Communications Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Hampshire

October 18, 2019

James Daniel Hobgood
v.
Hearst Communications, Inc., d/b/a/ 40/29 News

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          ANDREA K. JOHNSTONE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff James Daniel Hobgood has sued the defendant, Hearst Communications, Inc., d/b/a 40/29 News (“Hearst”) for defamation. Hobgood's complaint (Doc. No. 1) has been referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for preliminary review, pursuant to LR 4.3(d) and 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2). For the reasons that follow, the district judge should dismiss plaintiff's complaint because plaintiff has failed to state a cause of action.

         I. Preliminary Review Standard

         The magistrate judge conducts a preliminary review of complaints, like the plaintiff's, which are filed in forma pauperis. See LR 4.3(d). The magistrate judge may recommend to the district judge that one or more claims be dismissed if, among other things, the court lacks jurisdiction, a defendant is immune from the relief sought, or the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2); LR 4.3(d). In conducting its preliminary review, the court construes pro se complaints liberally. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (per curiam). The complaint must contain “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citation omitted). Here, the complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted

         II. Background[1]

         In 2016, plaintiff pled guilty in federal court to cyberstalking, preserving his right to appeal the district court's denial of his motion to dismiss the indictment. Complaint (Doc. No. 1) at 3; Hobgood II, 868 F.3d at 746. He was sentenced to one year and one day in prison and ordered to pay the victim $2387.91 in restitution. Id. Following Hobgood's conviction, prosecutors transmitted statements about the case that received media coverage. Complaint (Doc. No. 1) at 6. Subsequently, defendant 40/29, a television station in Fort Smith, Arkansas, published the following statement on its website and Facebook page, which Hobgood claims is false and defamatory:

Prosecutor's Office: A woman stopped seeing James Hobgood and moved to Arkansas. So, he went online to make it look like she was an exotic dancer in an attempt to get her fired unless she “repented for the perceived wrong she committed against him.”

Id. at 7.[2]

         III. Legal Analysis

         Under New Hampshire law, “[t]o establish defamation, there must be evidence that a defendant . . . publish[ed] . . . a false and defamatory statement of fact about the plaintiff to a third party.” Independent Mech. Contractors, Inc. v. Gordon T. Burke & Sons, Inc., 635 A.2d 487, 492 (N.H. 1993) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 558 (1977)).[3]

         Plaintiff alleges that “not one factual assertion [in the 40/29 report] was accurate. Complaint (Doc. No. 1) at 8. This assertion of falsity, however, is undercut by the facts underlying plaintiff's 2016 guilty plea. The court in Hobgood II described the facts to which Hobgood stipulated as part of his plea:

Hobgood and the government stipulated to the following facts. In September 2014, KB met Hobgood and had a brief romantic relationship with him in Richmond, Virginia. KB began rebuffing Hobgood's advances, and in January 2015, she moved to Arkansas. KB alleges that Hobgood, still living in Richmond, began contacting her via e-mail, Facebook messages, and third-party text messages to demand that she apologize to him in person for her treatment of him. KB did not do so.
KB alleges that Hobgood then created publicly accessible social media accounts in which he portrayed KB as an exotic dancer and prostitute. Hobgood also sent letters to KB's employer through the mail and over the Internet claiming that KB was an exotic dancer and prostitute. Hobgood contacted KB and KB's family by e-mail, stating that unless she apologized to him, he would continue to make these representations. According to KB, Hobgood's actions caused her substantial emotional distress and contributed to her need for short-term hospitalization.
Law enforcement investigators eventually contacted Hobgood about his conduct. Hobgood admitted sending KB, her family, and her employer communications by email, telephone, and mail, in which he stated that KB was an exotic dancer. Hobgood told investigators that he would not stop contacting KB until he caused her to lose her job, or caused her to “repent” for the unspecified wrong that she committed against him. Investigators also were able to corroborate that Hobgood ...

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