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Abbas v. Foreign Policy Group, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

April 24, 2015

YASSER ABBAS, APPELLANT
v.
FOREIGN POLICY GROUP, LLC AND JONATHAN SCHANZER, APPELLEES

Argued: October 20, 2014.

Page 1329

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 1330

Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. (No. 1:12-cv-01565).

Louis G. Adolfsen argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs was S. Dwight Stephens.

Kevin T. Baine argued the cause for appellees. With him on the brief were Adam R. Tarosky, James M. McDonald, Nathan E. Siegel, Seth D. Berlin, and Shaina J. Ward.

Irvin B. Nathan, Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Ariel B. Levinson-Waldman, Senior Counsel to the Attorney General, Todd S. Kim, Solicitor General, Loren L. AliKhan, Deputy Solicitor General, and Rebecca P. Kohn, Assistant Attorney General, were on the brief for the District of Columbia as amicus curiae in support of the District of Columbia Anti-SLAPP Act's applicability in federal diversity cases.

Laura R. Handman, Alison Schary, Thomas R. Burke, Richard A. Bernstein, Kevin M. Goldberg, Karen Kaiser, Jonathan Bloom, Randy L. Shapiro, Jonathan D. Hart, Mark H. Jackson, Jason P. Conti, Jacob P. Goldstein, Oscar Grut, David Giles, Susan E. Seager, Barbara W. Wall, Jonathan Donnellan, Kristina Findikyan, Karole Morgan-Prager, Juan Cornejo, Sandra S. Baron, Kathleen A. Hirce, Charles D. Tobin, Mickey H. Osterreicher, Greg Lewis, Denise Leary, Ashley Messenger, Susan Weiner, David E. McCraw, Mark H. Jackson, Kurt Wimmer, Richard J. Tofel, Bruce D. Brown, Gregg P. Leslie, Gail Gove, Bruce W. Sanford, Laurie A. Babinski, Karen H. Flax, Julie Xanders, Ed Lazarus, John B. Kennedy, and James A. McLauglin were on the brief for amici curiae Media Organizations in support of appellees.

Before: KAVANAUGH and SRINIVASAN, Circuit Judges, and EDWARDS, Senior Circuit Judge. OPINION filed by Circuit Judge KAVANAUGH.

OPINION

Page 1331

Kavanaugh, Circuit Judge:

Yasser Abbas is the son of current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. In 2012, the Foreign Policy Group published an article on its website about Yasser Abbas and his brother Tarek. At the outset, the article asked two questions: " Are the sons of the Palestinian president growing rich off their father's system?" and " Have they enriched themselves at the expense of regular Palestinians -- and even U.S. taxpayers?"

In response to the questions posed in the article, Yasser Abbas filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Foreign Policy Group and the article's author, Jonathan Schanzer. Abbas alleged defamation under D.C. law. But the D.C. Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation Act of 2010 (known as the Anti-SLAPP Act) requires courts, upon motion by the defendant, to dismiss defamation lawsuits that target political or public advocacy, unless the plaintiff can show a likelihood of success on the merits. Applying the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act, the District Court dismissed Abbas's defamation complaint.

Page 1332

Abbas now appeals. He contends that a federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction may not apply the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act's special motion to dismiss provision. In Abbas's view, the D.C. provision makes it easier for defendants to obtain dismissal of a case before trial than the more plaintiff-friendly standards in Rules 12 and 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Citing the Supreme Court's decision in Shady Grove Orthopedic Associates, P.A. v. Allstate Insurance Co., 559 U.S. 393, 130 S.Ct. 1431, 176 L.Ed.2d 311 (2010), Abbas says we must follow the Federal Rules, not the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act, in this federal court proceeding. We agree with Abbas on that point. But we affirm the District Court's judgment on an alternative ground: Under Federal Rule 12(b)(6), Abbas's allegations do not suffice to make out a defamation claim under D.C. law.

I

A

Many States have enacted anti-SLAPP statutes to give more breathing space for free speech about contentious public issues. Those statutes " try to decrease the 'chilling effect' of certain kinds of libel litigation and other speech-restrictive litigation." Eugene Volokh, The First Amendment and Related Statutes 118 (5th ed. 2014). The statutes generally accomplish that objective by making it easier to dismiss defamation suits at an early stage of the litigation.

Like the various States' anti-SLAPP laws, the D.C. Anti-SLAPP Act makes it easier for defendants sued for defamation and related torts to obtain quick dismissal of harassing lawsuits. The D.C. Council passed the Act in 2010 in response to what the Council described as an upsurge in " lawsuits filed by one side of a political or public policy debate aimed to punish or prevent the expression of opposing points of view." Council of the District of Columbia, Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, Report on Bill 18-893, at 1 (Nov. 18, 2010).

Under the Act as relevant here, a defendant may file a special motion to dismiss " any claim arising from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest." D.C. Code § 16-5502(a). To obtain dismissal, the defendant first must make a " prima facie showing that the claim at issue arises from an act in furtherance of the right of advocacy on issues of public interest." Id. § 16-5502(b). If the defendant makes that prima facie showing, then the plaintiff must demonstrate that " the claim is likely to succeed on the merits." Id. If the plaintiff makes that showing, the defendant's special motion to dismiss must be denied. Otherwise, the special motion to dismiss must be granted. See id. (As we will see, that likelihood of success requirement is important to this case.) While a special motion to dismiss is pending, discovery is stayed except for limited purposes. Id. § 16-5502(c). A defendant who prevails on a special motion to dismiss may recover the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorney's fees. Id. § 16-5504(a).

B

Yasser Abbas is the son of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and is a businessman with substantial commercial interests in the Middle East. Yasser Abbas and his brother Tarek were featured in " The Brothers Abbas," an article by Jonathan Schanzer published by Foreign Policy Group on its website.

Schanzer's article addresses the Abbas brothers' wealth and its possible sources. The article's subtitle poses a question: " Are the ...


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