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Schmalfeldt v. Grady

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

December 5, 2017

William M. Schmalfeldt, Sr., Plaintiff,
Patrick G. Grady; William John Joseph Hoge, III; Eric P. Johnson; and Sarah Palmer, Defendants.


          Kaymani D. West, United States Magistrate Judge.

         William M. Schmalfeldt, Sr. ("Plaintiff), proceeding pro se, brought this civil action pursuant to diversity jurisdiction, alleging claims against four persons who are residents of South Carolina for libel, conspiracy, reckless conduct/wanton and willful misconduct, and abuse of process. This matter is before the court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction, Motion to Strike the Amended Complaint, Motion for a More Definite Statement, and Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim upon which Relief Can be Granted, all filed on August 3, 2017. All four Motions are included in the same document and the same Memorandum in Support addresses all four Motions. ECF Nos. 45, 45-1. Plaintiff responded to Defendants' Motions on August 9, 2017, ECF Nos. 46, 46-2. The court entered a Roseboro Order[1] on August 16, 2017, advising Plaintiff of the importance of such motions and of the need for him to file an adequate response. ECF No. 50. Defendants did not file a reply. Defendants' Motions are now ripe for consideration. This case was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for all pretrial proceedings pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) and (B) and Local Rule 73.02(B)(2)(e) (D.S.C.). Because Defendants' Motions to Dismiss are dispositive, a Report and Recommendation is entered for the court's review.[2]

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Facts

         The operative Second Amended Complaint, ECF No. 32, and the docket of this case shows that Plaintiff currently resides in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The four Defendants reside in four different states: Defendant Grady resides in Illinois, Defendant Hoge resides in Maryland, Defendant Johnson resides in Tennessee, and Defendant Palmer resides in North Carolina. Id. No Defendant was served with process in South Carolina, all four Defendants are represented by the same attorney, and all join in the pending Motions filed by that attorney. Plaintiff alleges that his pleading is brought under diversity jurisdiction and asserts several causes of action: libel, conspiracy, reckless conduct/wanton and willful misconduct, and abuse of process. Plaintiff alleges that this court can exercise personal jurisdiction over these out-of-state residents because they committed a tort in this state, i.e., the alleged libel that he sues for under his pleading, and because they "aim their blogs and online comments toward South Carolina." Id. at 6. According to Plaintiff, Defendants have remarked online about his difficulty in finding housing in South Carolina and their many years of negative comments/statements about him have created a Google presence that has made it "understandable that South Carolina landlords would refuse to rent an apartment to the Plaintiff." Id. at 7. Plaintiff does not explicitly say that he was denied housing directly because of Defendants' online activities, but he does state that "[v]arious applications made by Plaintiff to various apartment complexes have been rejected or outright ignored due to a well-discussed tendency among property renters to do a 'Google Check' on the name of the prospective tenant." Id.

         Plaintiffs claims are based on facts showing that Plaintiff and all Defendants have had longstanding and ongoing negative interactions with each other, since at least 2015 and before Plaintiff moved to South Carolina, on internet blogs and in the comments on such blogs. According to Plaintiff, these negative interactions have followed him through residential moves from Maryland in 2015 to Wisconsin to Iowa in early 2017 and now to South Carolina. Id. at 3. According to Plaintiff, Defendants use words such as "deranged" and "cyberstalker" to falsely describe Plaintiff and have falsely labeled him a child abuser and child pornographer. Id. at 8. According to Plaintiff, some of Defendants' comments have incited "their more unstable readers to take action" against him such as calls for physical harm and death and has caused him to move from Maryland, to Wisconsin, to Iowa, and now to South Carolina. Id. at 11-12. Finally, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant Palmer abused process in North Carolina when she obtained a restraining order against Plaintiff. Id. at 12-13. Plaintiff seeks nominal, general, and punitive damages and injunctive relief, plus suit costs and expenses. Id. at 14.

         B. Motions to Dismiss

         In their Motions to Dismiss, Defendants assert that this court cannot exercise personal jurisdiction over them because to do so would not comport with due process. Defendants contend that Plaintiff cannot show that any of them have "a substantial connection with South Carolina, " ECF No. 45 at 1, or that any of them purposefully targeted this state through any of their activities. ECF No. 45-1 at 6. Defendants also contend that the Second Amended Complaint fails to state a claim on which relief can be granted because Plaintiff fails to allege libel that occurred while he was in South Carolina, fails to allege damages under Counts II and III, and fails to allege improper use of process under Count IV. Id. at 5.

         Plaintiff responds that this court should exercise specific personal jurisdiction over Defendants because they committed a tort (libel) in whole or in part in the State of South Carolina. ECF No. 46-2 at 5; see S.C. Code Ann. § 36 2 803(A)(3).[3] He argues that Defendants made defamatory statements about him on several internet blogs and aimed their comments at landlords in South Carolina in an effort to "make it difficult" for him to find housing in this State. ECF No. 46-2 at 5. In his Response to Defendants' Motion, Plaintiff quotes from several June and July 2017 internet posts from Defendants relating to his housing situation and refers to part of his Second Amended Complaint where he appears to be "suing on behalf of South Carolina landlords." ECF No. 46 at 4-6. He asserts that these postings show that Defendants intended to harm him in South Carolina and, thus, they purposely availed themselves of the privilege of conducting activities in South Carolina, providing sufficient minimum contacts with the State to satisfy due process. Id. at 6. With regard to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim on Which Relief can be Granted, Plaintiff responds that this court's initial review of his pleading settled that issue in his favor and argues that his Second Amended Complaint clearly sets out damages and alleges that Defendant Palmer used process in North Carolina with an improper motive. Id. at 7; ECF No. 46- 2 at 8-11.

         II. Standard of Review

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). In construing a motion to dismiss, the facts, though not the legal conclusions, alleged in a plaintiffs pro se complaint must be taken as true. Loe v. Armistead, 582 F.2d 1291, 1292 (4th Cir. 1978); Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662. A pro se complaint should survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim only when a plaintiff has set forth "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level" and beyond the level that is merely conceivable. Id. at 555. A pro se complaint should be liberally construed. Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978). However, a court is not required "to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, " Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986), or a legal conclusion unsupported by factual allegations. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Dismissal is appropriate when a complaint contains a description of underlying facts that fails to state a viable claim. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 558.

         When a court's personal jurisdiction is challenged, the burden is on the plaintiff to establish that a ground for jurisdiction exists. Combs v. Bakker, 886 F.2d 673, 676 (4th Cir. 1989). When the court resolves the motion on written submissions (as opposed to an evidentiary hearing), the plaintiff need only make a "prima facie showing of a sufficient jurisdictional basis." Id. However, the plaintiffs showing must be based on specific facts set forth in the record. Magic Toyota, Inc. v. Se. Toyota Distribs., Inc., 784 F.Supp. 306, 310 (D.S.C. 1992). The court may consider the parties' pleadings, affidavits, and other supporting documents but must construe them "in the light most favorable to plaintiff, drawing all inferences and resolving all factual disputes in his favor, and assuming plaintiffs credibility." Sonoco Prods. Co. v. ACE INA Ins., 877 F.Supp.2d 398, 404-05 (D.S.C. 2012) (internal quotation and alteration marks omitted); see also Carefirst of Md., Inc. v. Carefirst Pregnancy Ctrs., Inc., 334 F.3d 390, 396 (4th Cir. 2003) ("In deciding whether the plaintiff has made the requisite showing, the court must take all disputed facts and reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff). However, a court considering the issue of personal jurisdiction "need not credit conclusory allegations or draw farfetched inferences." Sonoco, 877 F.Supp.2d at 205 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         III. Discussion

         To meet his burden, Plaintiff must show (1) that South Carolina's long-arm statute authorizes jurisdiction, and (2) that the exercise of personal jurisdiction complies with the constitutional due-process requirements. E.g., Christian Sci. Bd. of Dirs. of First Church of Christ, Scientist v. Nolan,259 F.3d 209, 215 (4th Cir. 2001). South Carolina has interpreted its long-arm statute to extend to the constitutional limits of due process. See S. Plastics Co. v. S. Commerce Bank,423 S.E.2d 128, 130-31 (S.C. 1992). Thus, the first step is collapsed into the second, and the only inquiry before the court is whether the due-process requirements are met, i. e., whether the defendant has "minimum contacts" with the forum state. See, e.g., ESAB Group, Inc. v. Centricut, LLC, 34 F.Supp.2d 323, 328 (D.S.C. 1999); Sonoco Prods. Co. v. Inteplast Corp.,867 F.Supp. 352, 352 (D.S.C. 1994). The dual jurisdictional requirements merge into a single inquiry as to whether a defendant has sufficient "minimum contacts with [the forum] such that the maintenance of the suit does not offend 'traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice.' " Int 7 Shoe Co. v. Washington,326 U.S. 310, 316 (1945) (quoting Milliken v. Meyer,311 U.S. 457, 463 (1940)). This standard can be met in two ways: "by finding specific jurisdiction based on conduct connected to the suit or by finding general jurisdiction." ALS Scan, Inc. v. Digital Serv. Consultants, Inc.,293 F.3d 707, 711-12 (4th Cir. 2002) (citing Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, S.A. v. Hall,466 U.S. 408, 414 (1984)). To determine whether specific jurisdiction exists, the court considers "(1) the extent to which the defendant has purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities in the state; (2) whether the plaintiffs claims arise out of those activities directed at the state; and (3) whether the exercise of personal jurisdiction would be constitutionally 'reasonable.'" Carefirst of Md., 334 F.3d at 397 (citing ALS Scan, 293 F.3d at 711-12; Helicopteros Nacionales de Colombia, 466 U.S. at 414 & n.8). In other words, the defendant must have "minimum contacts" with the forum, see Burger King v. Rudzewicz,471 U.S. 462, 471-76 (1985), the cause of action must arise from those contacts, and the exercise of personal jurisdiction must be reasonable. "Minimum contacts" and "reasonableness" are not independent requirements; rather, they are aspects of the requirement of due process, and thus "considerations sometimes serve to establish the reasonableness of jurisdiction upon a lesser showing of minimum contacts than would otherwise be required." Burger King, 471 U.S. at 477. District Courts are not required to engage in speculative inferences from conclusory facts proposed to support personal jurisdiction. See, e.g., Haley Paint Co. v. E. I. Dupont De Nemours & Co.,775 F.Supp.2d 790, 799 (D. Md. 2011) (applying general pleading rules to jurisdictional facts; conclusory assertions of conspiracy and alter ego ...

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