A Delaware court rejected a Pennsylvania plaintiff's attempt to take advantage of Delaware's generous two-year statute of limitations for defamation and false light claims, dismissing the plaintiff's lawsuit with prejudice and in its entirety, without leave to amend. Johnson v. Warner Bros., et. al., No. 1:16-cv-00185 (D. Del.)
Judge Leonard P. Stark held that libel and false light claims asserted by Marques Andre Johnson, a rapper who sued multiple media defendants for confusing him with another rapper who cut off his own penis, were time-barred. Although the plaintiff was domiciled in Pennsylvania (which has a one-year statute of limitations for defamation and false light claims), he sued in Delaware more than one year after the reports were published, arguing that he had a substantial fan base and opportunities in Delaware that were diminished as a result of the reports.
However, Delaware's borrowing statute requires that where a cause of action arises in another state and that state has a shorter statute of limitations than Delaware's, the law of the state with the shorter limitations period applies. Neither the plaintiff's allegations of economic and reputational harm in Delaware, nor the fact that some of the media defendants were Delaware corporations, were sufficient to defeat the presumption that, in a multistate defamation case, the plaintiff's cause of action for defamation arises in his state of domicile. Applying Pennsylvania's statute of limitations, the court held the action time-barred and granted the motion to dismiss against all defendants.
Johnson, who performed under the name "Andre Roxx" and was affiliated with the internationally known hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, filed suit over a 2014 article that reported that he attempted suicide by cutting off his own penis and jumping out of a window. TMZ's article confused Roxx with another rapper named Andre Johnson, who was also affiliated with the Wu-Tang Clan but performed under the name "Christ Bearer." A number of other media defendants subsequently repeated the error. The plaintiff, who was incarcerated in Pennsylvania at the time, claimed that he learned of the story from television and radio broadcasts while in prison.
District Court Decision
The plaintiff argued that his claims were timely because his cause of action arose in Delaware and that even if Pennsylvania law applied, the discovery rule would toll the statute of limitations until the plaintiff learned the identities of all of the defendants who republished the story.
The court rejected all of the plaintiff's arguments, finding first that his multistate defamation and false light claims arose in Delaware. Johnson argued that Delaware had the most significant relationship to his claims because the story caused him the greatest injury in Delaware, where he had a substantial fan base and allegedly lost many opportunities to perform. However, since Johnson could not show that his economic and reputational injuries were "unique" to Delaware, the court held that he could not overcome the presumption that his cause of action arose in the state where he was domiciled. Applying the Delaware Borrowing Statute, the court found that Pennsylvania law governed his claims and rendered them untimely.
The plaintiff's alternative argument—namely that that the discovery rule tolled his claims under Pennsylvania law—fared no better. The court agreed with defendants that the discovery rule did not apply to mass-media defamation claims, which are easily discernible. Moreover, the plaintiff conceded that he had learned of the allegedly defamatory statements right away, even if he claimed not to know immediately of the full extent of his injury.
Dismissing the claims against all defendants, the court noted that though the plaintiff had not requested leave to amend, any such request would be denied as futile, since the claims were time-barred when first filed.
This article originally appeared in the MLRC March 2017 Media Law Letter. James Rosenfeld and Jaya N. Kasibhatla of Davis Wright Tremaine and Thomas E. Hanson, Jr. of Morris James represented defendants BET Interactive, LLC, CBS Interactive, Inc., Daily News, L.P., Gannett Company, Inc., iHeartMedia, Inc., Interactive One, LLC, Real Times Media, LLC and Viacom International, Inc.James Rosenfeld is partner and co-chair of DWT's media practice group, based in New York. Jaya N. Kasibhatla is an associate based in New York.