from the what-an-odd-footnote dept
Second Bob Murray post in a day? Second Bob Murray post in a day! It would appear that the whole ACLU amicus brief side show will remain a side show. The federal district court has sent the case back to state court where it originated. We had written about HBO moving the case to federal court and (correctly) predicted that Murray would likely try to have it sent back to state court, but (incorrectly) predicted that it wouldn’t work.
Just as background: in many cases, defendants want these cases in federal court because of the general belief (and you can debate whether this is accurate or not) that federal court judges are more sophisticated in understanding legal issues than their state court counterparts. This can be a little unfair to state judges (and a little too nice to some federal judges), but the general rule of thumb is if you have a strong case, it’s better to be in federal court. But, this case is moving back to state court over lack of “diversity.” I’ll leave it to lawyers to offer a more complete explanation of diversity, but the short layman’s version is that it’s basically about whether or not the parties are in different states. If they are, you can move to federal court. If they aren’t, you’re in state court. As we explained, HBO/John Oliver had tried to argue that Murray’s inclusion of various West Virginia companies that he owned was a fraudulent attempt to avoid diversity rules, as those companies weren’t really mentioned in Oliver’s piece. Murray and Murray Energy are based in Ohio. Oliver and HBO are based in NY.
However, here the court finds that it was proper for Murray to include the various West Virginia coal mining companies he owns as plaintiffs.
The Plaintiff Corporations in question were, therefore, properly joined, and the case should be remanded to state court. First, Mr. Murray is the CEO and director of each of the Plaintiff Corporations and is listed as the controller of the mines owned by those corporations. Not only is Mr. Murray heavily interrelated with these corporations in a formal business sense, but a reasonable person who knows of Mr. Murray, especially in West Virginia or another coal state, would find it nearly impossible to separate Mr. Murray from his corporations and mines. With such a strong interrelationship between Mr. Murray and the Plaintiff Corporations, defamatory statements made about Mr. Murray in his professional capacity may be easily seen as negatively implicating the operation of his corporations.
The court admits that the statements by Oliver were about Murray himself, and not his companies, but says the two are so closely identified with one another that it doesn’t matter for this purpose. Also some of the comments Oliver made, while about Murray, were specifically about actions at Murray-owned companies.
The allegedly defamatory statements made about Mr. Murray did refer to him in his professional capacity. First, the Crandall Canyon Statement refers to a collapse at a mine Mr. Murray chaired and operated regarding the cause of the collapse. Second, The Black Lung Statement refers to Mr. Murray in his professional capacity because his decisions regarding Black Lung regulation would be made as the chairman and operator of the mines. The alleged ?character assassinations? of Mr. Murray, including the Geriatric Dr. Evil Statement, refer to Mr. Murray in his capacity as a private individual because they bear no relation to his professional conduct. However, because the interrelationship between Mr. Murray and the Plaintiff Corporations is so strong, it is possible that those comments may defame the corporations if it was determined that the comments discredited the way the Plaintiff Corporations were operated. The Crandall Canyon statement implies that the Plaintiff Corporations are run by a dishonest figure, while the Black Lung statement implies a lack of care for the safety of Mr. Murray?s employees. Even without the character statements, there would be sufficient cause for the Plaintiff Corporations to have a possible chance of success in a defamation action based on comments made about Mr. Murray
Random aside: for reasons that I do not understand, in the midst of the above paragraph the court adds a footnote explaining Dr. Evil in much greater details than seems necessary.
1 For those who might not be familiar, Dr. Evil, whose real name is Douglas Evil Powers, gained notoriety as the villain of the Austin Powers film franchise. He is a parody of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a nemesis of James Bond. Along with his cat, Mr. Bigglesworth, a colorful supporting entourage, and a plethora of secret lairs, Dr. Evil made several attempts at taking over the world, before ultimately finding redemption by the end of the final film.
First: SPOILER ALERT. And second, I mean, sure. That’s a decent summary (and I must admit I don’t remember Dr. Evil even having a real name, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen the films), but I’m not sure why this footnote is necessary in a straightforward decision to remand. Almost feels like the judge wanted to get in something oddly humorous in such a weird case.
But back to the meat of the ruling. The court says that since the statements could defame the companies in West Virginia and (whoops…) HBO and those West Virginia coal companies are incorporated in Delaware, there’s no diversity jurisdiction to move the case to federal court:
Defendants? primary contention is that the Plaintiff Corporations were not properly joined because the defamatory statements were not of and concerning the corporations, giving the corporations no possibility of asserting a right to relief. As discussed herein, this Court finds that defamatory statements made about an executive of a business may be sufficient to defame his business where the statement was made about the individual in his professional capacity and reflects negatively on the operation of the business. Therefore, the Plaintiff Corporations may have been defamed by statements made about Mr. Murray, giving them a possibility of success in this action as set forth by Ashworth, 395 F.Supp.2d at 403. Because the Plaintiff Corporations have this possibility of success, they were properly joined. This joinder destroys the diversity jurisdiction, which would have allowed a removal to this Court because the Plaintiff Corporations and Home Box Office, Inc. are all incorporated in Delaware. Therefore, this action should be remanded to state court.
All in all, a pretty straightforward decision on remanding — and, of course, it makes no statement on the merits (or lack thereof) of the actual defamation claims. This is probably not a big deal in the overall case, as Oliver/HBO’s argument is much, much stronger when it comes to whether or not his statements were defamatory (as the ACLU so nicely explained in their now-irrelevant amicus brief), but it is at least something of a setback for Oliver and HBO. And, in case you’re wondering, the 4th Circuit (where this is) does not tend to allow remand orders like this to be appealed. So they’re likely stuck in state court. That’s a bit of a hassle for Oliver/HBO, and a bigger annoyance for reporters like myself who do have access to federal court records while state court records in West Virginia are (annoyingly) not so easy to access.