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CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY INT'L v. ELI LILLY

United States District Court, Southern District of New York


October 25, 1991

CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY INTERNATIONAL, CITIZENS' COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ELI LILLY & CO., PAINEWEBBER INC., AND RONALD NORDMANN, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lowe, District Judge.

  OPINION AND ORDER

Before this Court are the motions of defendants Eli Lilly & Co. ("Lilly"), PaineWebber, Inc. ("PaineWebber"), and Ronald Nordmann ("Nordmann") to dismiss the above-captioned action pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons set forth below, the motion of Lilly is granted, and the joint motion of PaineWebber and Nordmann is denied.

BACKGROUND

Procedural Background

This is an action for defamation brought by Church of Scientology International ("CSI") and Citizens' Commission on Human Rights ("CCHR"). Plaintiffs are nonprofit corporations incorporated in California, having their principal places of business in California. Defendant Lilly is a pharmaceutical company incorporated in Indiana, having its principal place of business in Indiana. Defendant PaineWebber is a stock brokerage and securities firm incorporated in Delaware, having its principal place of business in New York. Defendant Nordmann is a market analyst employed by PaineWebber, and a citizen of New York. Complaint at ¶ 1.

In their Complaint of 10/31/90, plaintiffs allege that defendants defamed them in the total amount of $40,200,000, id. ¶ 39, by publishing two false and defamatory statements, of and concerning plaintiffs, on PaineWebber's database, with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statements. On 12/6/90 defendants PaineWebber and Nordmann filed a motion, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted. Memorandum of Defendants PaineWebber and Nordmann in Support of Their Motion to Dismiss the Complaint ("PaineWebber Memo"). On the same day, defendant Lilly filed a separate motion to dismiss, adopting PaineWebber's grounds and also making an alternate argument of its own. Memorandum of Defendant Lilly in Support of its Motion to Dismiss the Complaint ("Lilly Memo").

On 12/21/90 this Court referred this action to Magistrate Judge Nina Gershon pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). In her Report and Recommendation of 3/28/91 ("Report"), Magistrate Judge Gershon advised dismissal of this action in its entirety. Report at 9. Plaintiffs CSI and CCHR filed a timely objection, disputing the reasoning and conclusion of the Magistrate Judge. These objections, along with defendants' responses, are now before this Court.

Under the Federal Rules the District Court is required to make a de novo determination of those issues in the Magistrate Judge's report to which objections are made in writing. "The district judge may accept, reject, or modify the recommended decision, receive further evidence, or recommit the matter to the magistrate with instructions." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b). For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the Magistrate Judge's Report with respect to defendant Lilly, but reverse the Report with respect to defendants PaineWebber and Nordmann.

Factual Background

On July 18, 1990 the Wall Street Journal featured an article entitled "Prozac Said to Spur Idea of Suicide," describing the controversy over the anti-depressant medication Prozac, which is manufactured by Lilly. The subject of the article was a lawsuit filed against the drug company, alleging that the drug "caused [a New York woman] to commit acts of self-destruction and to make attempts at suicide." Ex. A to Complaint. The article described "a Los Angeles-based consumer organization associated with the Church of Scientology" which collected the complaints of patients taking Prozac, and subsequently identified this group as CCHR. The article described Lilly's response as "[believing that] some of the complaints are being drummed up by the Scientology group, which has a history of criticizing the use of psychiatric drugs." Id.

The following day, Nordmann, a market analyst for PaineWebber who followed Lilly stock, wrote an Advisory responding to the Journal article and recommending continued purchase of Lilly stock, despite the concern of investors. Complaint at ¶ 9. Plaintiffs allege that Nordmann was acting in the scope of his employment when he authored the statements, and that "the Advisory was prepared for, published by and distributed on PaineWebber's nationwide communications system to PaineWebber's sales personnel, customers and others, and all of PaineWebber's branch offices." Id. ¶¶ 7, 15. The advisory described Prozac's success and Lilly's "highly ethical promotion practices," which included regular updates of package inserts. Ex. B to Complaint. In this context Nordmann wrote the statements of which plaintiffs complain:

  "The final addition to Prozac's package insert in
  May concerned one case of `violent behavior.' In
  this case, a depressed man taking Prozac committed
  mass murder. Interestingly, this man, Mr. Wes
  Becker (sic), happened to be a member of the Church
  of Scientology. The Church and other related
  special interest groups have, in our opinion been
  on a vendetta to discredit Prozac."*fn1 (Emphasis
  added).

  According to the Complaint, these statements "were told to Nordmann by an employee of Lilly within the scope of the employee's employment" for the purpose of having Nordmann publish the statements, in order to shore up Lilly's stock in the wake of the worrisome Journal piece. Id. ¶ 10.

Plaintiffs maintain that both these statements are false: Wesbecker was never a member of CSI, and neither plaintiffs nor any other Scientology organization is "on a vendetta" against Lilly's drug. Id. ¶¶ 12, 13. On October 31, 1990 plaintiffs commenced the instant action.

DISCUSSION

In her Report, Magistrate Judge Gershon correctly states the liberal standard of review for a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6): "[T]he complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that plaintiffs can prove no set of facts in support of their claim which would entitle them to relief." Report at 4 (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 101-02, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957)). For purposes of this motion, the court looks solely at the complaint and its exhibits. Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c). The plaintiffs' allegations are taken as true, with the caveat that a bald, unsupported allegation is insufficient to pass the pleading threshold. 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1357, at 318 (2d ed. 1990). The court may find that a plaintiff's complaint, though neither artful nor of great specificity in its claim, states within its text a theory of law upon which plaintiffs may be permitted to proceed with their cause of action. 5A id. § 1356, at 296.

The issue before this Court is whether plaintiffs CSI and CCHR have stated something more than an accusation as to each element of the tort of defamation under the laws of New York. "The complaint must be deemed sufficient if plaintiff has pleaded a colorable claim of libel." Lasky v. American Broadcasting Companies, 606 F. Supp. 934, 938 (S.D.N.Y. 1985), (citing Davis v. Ross, 754 F.2d 80 (2d Cir. 1985).*fn2 The four elements are: a false and defamatory statement of and concerning plaintiff; publication to a third party; fault, the degree of which depends upon the status of the libelled party; and special harm or per se actionability. Angio Medical Corp. v. Eli Lilly & Co., 720 F. Supp. 269, 272 (S.D.N.Y. 1989).

The first element, defamatory meaning, is discussed at greater length below. As to the second element, publication to a third party, the computerized PaineWebber Advisory was, by its nature, published to third parties. As to the third element, fault, the Complaint alleges the highest level which could possibly be required.*fn3 With regard to the fourth element, special harm, under New York law, words are libel per se if they "affect a person in his or her profession by imputing to the person misconduct, incapacity, unfitness or lack of any qualification deemed necessary for the conduct of the profession." Lasky, 606 F. Supp. at 937; Davis, 754 F.2d at 82. As plaintiffs' Complaint articulates, this action meets this requirement, therefore special damages do not have to be pleaded. Complaint at ¶¶ 33, 37. All other elements of an action for defamation being recognizable, we are left to determine the issue of defamatory meaning.

Susceptibility to Defamatory Meaning

In this case the primary issue of law in dispute is the existence of defamatory meaning in the PaineWebber Advisory. This Court disagrees with Magistrate Judge Gershon and finds that the statements could reasonably convey a defamatory meaning.

Whether the statements are reasonably susceptible of a defamatory connotation is a question of law for the court. First, the court decides whether the words are susceptible of one or more meanings to the average reader. Davis, 754 F.2d at 82. If they are ambiguous, then the court decides if one of these meanings could be defamatory. Id. If so, it is a question of fact for the jury as to which meaning was the one actually understood by readers of the statements. Lasky, 606 F. Supp. at 938.

The principle of construction in New York is summed up in Lasky:

  "1. The Court must consider the publication as a
  whole and not pick out and isolate particular
  phrases."

  "2. The publication should be tested by its effect
  on the average reader. The Court should neither
  construe the words

  with technical precision or strain to place a
  particular interpretation on them, nor should the
  Court interpret the words in their mildest and
  most inoffensive sense to hold them non-libelous."

  "3. The Court should read the accused words
  against the background of their issuance with
  respect to the circumstances of their publication
  and the scope and apparent object of the writer."
  Id. at 939.

Magistrate Judge Gershon agreed with defendants that the defamatory meanings alleged by plaintiffs are unreasonable. While Magistrate Judge Gershon made a technically logical dissection of the sentences and their meanings, this Court finds that the statements, in juxtaposition and in context, are reasonably susceptible of a defamatory connotation. Thus, we find that the statements must be submitted to a jury for a determination of whether the ordinary and average person would understand these words as defamatory.

Constitutional Protection of Opinion

Under the standards of the Federal Constitution, certain statements of opinion are protected under the First Amendment. "[W]hether a statement constitutes a personal opinion or a statement of fact is a question of law for determination by the court." Davis, 754 F.2d at 85. Under the federal standard, recently enunciated in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., ___ U.S. ___, 110 S.Ct. 2695, 111 L.Ed.2d 1 (1990), we find that defendants' statements are not exempted from actionability by the First Amendment.

The three parts of the federal standard are: the plain import or common meaning of the specific words used; whether the statements are capable of verification for truth or falsity; and the context or type of speech. Only a particular type of speech is protected: "rhetorical hyperbole, vigorous epithets, and lusty and imaginative expression . . . [I]nstances where the [Supreme Court] ha[s] determined that the imprecise language and unusual setting would signal the reasonable observer that no actual facts were being conveyed about an individual." Immuno AG v. Moor-Jankowski, 77 N.Y.2d 235, 244, 567 N.E.2d 1270, 1274, 566 N.Y.S.2d 906, 910 (1991).

Applying the Milkovich standard in Immuno, New York's highest court stated, "[t]he key inquiry is whether challenged expression, however labeled by defendant, would reasonably appear to state or imply assertions of objective fact." Id. 567 N.E.2d at 1273, 566 N.Y.S.2d at 909. If an underlying fact, concerning plaintiffs and capable of being proven false, is suggested by the statement, then the statements at issue are not classified as opinion, and therefore not shielded from actionability. As with the determination of defamatory meaning, the circumstances of the statements are also considered in this inquiry: "In determining whether speech is actionable, courts must additionally 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." Id. 567 N.E.2d at 1273-74, 566 N.Y.S.2d at 909-10.

Applying the Milkovich/Immuno standard to the facts of this case, we find that Nordmann's two statements plainly assert two facts: 1) that Wesbecker was a member of CSI, and 2) that CSI and associated organizations were pursuing a hostile critique of Prozac. While the latter accusation may be somewhat more vague and difficult to prove than the first, the public nature of CCHR's activities and the public profile of the Prozac controversy indicate that this is also a factual dispute with a determinable answer. The general tenor of the Advisory was a partisan one, but it purported to be the true story of the Prozac `suicidal ideation' issue. Nordmann advised, in his professional capacity, that investors who sought to cash in on their lucrative Prozac investments were selling unwisely. ("Due to the stock's dramatic appreciation in recent months, it is not surprising to see some investors locking in profits now and asking questions about Prozac's safety later." Ex. B to Complaint.)

Furthermore, the context is substantially equivalent to an internal memo, and its tone is business-like and solemn. Compare Immuno, 567 N.E.2d 1270, 566 N.Y.S.2d 906 (letter to the editor). Although subjective in tone, the commentary purports to be based on actual facts, and to be pointing out their implications, not to be making a personal prediction or hyperbolic characterization. The impression created by these words in the mind of a reasonable person could be that they were purporting to state the truth of the matter, not merely the author's opinion.*fn4

Failure to State a Claim as to Lilly

This Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge that plaintiffs have failed to adequately allege that Lilly made the statements at issue. Plaintiffs allege only that the statements at issue, written by Nordmann, "were told to Nordmann by an employee of Lilly within the scope of the employee's employment." Complaint at ¶ 10.

Plaintiffs fail to provide both the context and the precise language of these statements, or to further identify their author. Neither sentence is attributed by Nordmann to anyone in particular. The language of each sentence is subjective on its face, and therefore gives the impression of having been created solely by Nordmann. For example, the choice of the word "interestingly" to qualify the alleged CSI membership of Wesbecker connotes an idea of the author's own. More significantly, on its face the second sentence could not have been communicated by Lilly, because "[b]y definition, Lilly could not be the author of PaineWebber's opinion." Lilly Memo at 10.

Without more precision in the pleadings, plaintiffs attribution of Nordmann's Advisory, written as a PaineWebber report on one product manufactured by an independent client, is on its face mere speculation as to Lilly's role in the Advisory's making. Such conclusory allegations will not survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

CONCLUSION

Plaintiff's Complaint can be construed as setting forth a claim of defamation as to defendants PaineWebber and Nordmann only. Defendant Lilly's motion to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim is therefore granted. Defendant PaineWebber's and defendant Nordmann's motion to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim is denied.

It Is So Ordered.


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