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Rich v. Cox Media Group Northeast, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

March 26, 2019

JOEL EDWARD RICH AND TODD BAGGETT PLAINTIFFS
v.
COX MEDIA GROUP NORTHEAST, LLC, D/B/A WHBQ TV/FOX 13 DEFENDANTS

          ORDER

          MICHAEL P. MILLS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the Court is defendant's, Cox Media Group Northeast, LLC, d/b/a WHBQ TV/Fox 13 (“WHBQ TV”), motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim [10]. The plaintiffs, Joel Edward Rich and Todd Baggett, having responded, and the defendant having filed its rebuttal, and the Court having reviewed the parties' submissions, is now prepared to rule.

         Relevant Facts

         The plaintiffs were police officers employed by the Southaven Mississippi Police Department. WHBQ TV is a local television station in Memphis, Tennessee owned by Cox Media Group Northeast LLC. WHBQ TV also operates a Facebook Page on which it posts local stories. On September 29, 2017, WHBQ TV posted an article on its Facebook page regarding the fatal shooting of Ismael Lopez by the Southaven Police Department. The article stated that WHBQ TV had obtained a list of officers purportedly on duty at the time of the shooting. The article then stated that, of the officers named on the list, “two snakes stand out - Todd Baggett and Joel Rich, ” and that they had been involved in a previous police incident involving Troy Goode in 2015. The article further stated that “Baggett and Rich are not accused of being the ones who shot Lopez.” The morning after the article was posted, WHBQ TV was alerted about the “snake reference.” WHBQ TV responded by removing the reference to “snakes” and included a note that read:

“UpDated: in a previous version of this story, an error was made describing two Southaven police officers in an unflattering manner. It was never our intent to misrepresent these officers. We have corrected the body of this story to reflect that. We apologize for the error.”

         The updated article is still accessible on WHBQ TV's website. WHBQ TV stated that the reference to the plaintiffs as “snakes” was a typographical error - which was made by a reporter who typed the words on her phone.

         Procedural History

         The article was attached as an exhibit to the defendant's motion to dismiss. In Haynes v. The Innocence Project the Southern District of Mississippi determined:

When a defendant attaches evidence to a 12(b)(6) motion that was referenced in the Complaint that is central to the plaintiff's claims, the defendant merely assists the plaintiff in establishing the basis of the suit, and the court in making the elementary determination of whether a claim has been stated.

Haynes v. The Innocence Project, No. 3:09-cv-218-KS-LRA, (S.D.Miss., 2011).

         In their complaint, the plaintiffs state that the defendant's statements were intended to “harm, embarrass and jeopardize” the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs further allege that their families suffered severe trauma as well as threats of harm and violence because of these statements. Finally, the plaintiffs state that the defendant's “false and malicious statements have resulted in injury to [the plaintiffs'] personal and professional reputation and have exposed them to public hatred, contempt and ridicule and degraded them in the community.” The plaintiffs have requested a total retraction of the false statements as well as compensatory and punitive damages against the defendant.

         The defendant filed the present motion, in which it argues that the plaintiffs have not proved that the statements made in the article were defamatory as a matter of law. Having considered the parties' arguments, along with relevant authorities and evidence, the Court finds as follows:

         Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

         Before the Court can grant a motion to dismiss, a defendant must show that the plaintiff has not met the relevant pleading standard to state a claim. Specifically, a defendant must show that the plaintiff's complaint fails to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 697 (2009) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual ...


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