Oprah Winfrey Seeks Dismissal of Defamation Lawsuit

The ex-head mistress of Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy for Girls sued Winfrey last month in Philadelphia for defamation, based on certain alleged comments made by Winfrey.  For example, the complaint alleges that Winfrey said, "I thought she cared about the girls of South Africa."  The implication being, according to the Complaint, that the ex-head mistress was not trustworthy.

My point in writing this post is not to focus on the alleged defamatory comments, but rather to zero in on the jurisdictional argument made by Winfrey's attorneys because it is a common scenario in the defamation context.  For more detail about the facts of the case read the Complaint itself or the piece written by Mary Claire Dale of the Associated Press.

Winfrey's attorneys are attempting to dismiss the case on jurisdictional and other grounds.  Specifically, they are bringing a 12(b)(2) motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  Based on the Complaint and the Motion, it appears that they will prevail.

Since Pennsylvania's long arm statute is co-extensive with the Due Process of clause of the Constitution, the inquiry is whether exercising personal jurisdiction over Winfrey comports with the Due Process clause.  That is, there must be general or specific jurisdiction.

Her attorneys argue that general jurisdiction is lacking because no facts are alleged in the Complaint establishing systematic and continuous contacts with the forum by Ms. Winfrey–only a conclusory allegation that "Defendants carry on a systematic and continuous part of their business with the Commonwealth and transact business in the Commonwealth."  Further, they argue that Winfrey has not conducted personal business in Pennsylvania such that she should reasonably expect to be haled into court in Pennsylvania. Finally, they contend that while the entity defendants (Harpo, et al.) may broadcast into Pennsylvania or do business their this is not sufficient to establish personal jurisdiction over Winfrey.

Winfrey's attorneys also argue that specific jurisdiction is lacking as well based on their analysis of the so-called Calder effects test.  Calder v. Jones 465 U.S. 783 (1984).  Under that test, the allegation must demonstrate that:  (1) defendant committed an intentional tort; (2) plaintiff felt the brunt of the harm in the forum, such that the forum could be said to be the focal point of the harm suffered by the plaintiff as a result of the tort; and (3) the defendant expressly aimed his or her tortious conduct at the forum such that the forum can be said to be the focal point of the tortious activity.

Ignore elements one and two of the Calder test for the moment.  Here is where most courts, in my humble opinion, will be spending their time analyzing cases likes these and others like it (think internet defamation cases).  As Winfrey's counsel correctly point out, plaintiff must be able to show that Winfrey "manifested behavior intentionally targeted at and focused on the forum." (Citation omitted).  It appears that this will be very difficult since the alleged defamation took place outside of Pennsylvania; Winfrey never published the statements in Pennsylvania; and the subject matter does not appear to relate to Pennsylvania.

Therefore, it appears that the motion to dismiss will be granted.  I look forward to reading Plaintiff's response, however.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *