Hoffman-Pugh v. Ramsey

Decision Date19 November 2002
Docket NumberNo. 02-12642.,02-12642.
Citation312 F.3d 1222
PartiesLinda HOFFMAN-PUGH, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Patricia RAMSEY, John Ramsey, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Darnay Hoffman, Law Offices of Darnay Hoffman, New York City, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

James C. Rawls, Eric P. Schroeder, Stephen Derek Bauer, Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy, LLP, L. Lin Wood, Jr., Atlanta, GA, for Defendants-Appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Before CARNES, HILL and FARRIS,* Circuit Judges.

CARNES, Circuit Judge:

This diversity case arises from a book written by John and Patricia Ramsey about the police investigation into their daughter's murder. Linda Hoffmann-Pugh, the Ramseys' former housekeeper, brought suit against the Ramseys, alleging libel and slander under Georgia law in connection with the book and its promotion. The district court granted the Ramseys' motion to dismiss Hoffmann-Pugh's complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. This appeal followed. For the reasons we will discuss, we affirm.

The Ramseys' young daughter, JonBenet, was murdered in 1996 in Boulder, Colorado, and the investigation that followed received intense media scrutiny and public attention. In March 2000, the Ramseys published a book about the investigation into their daughter's murder, entitled The Death of Innocence: The Untold Story of JonBenet's Murder and How Its Exploitation Compromised the Pursuit of Truth (Thomas Nelson Publishers 2000).

Hoffmann-Pugh's complaint alleges that the Ramseys libeled her in particular in the following passage from their book, describing the Ramseys' interactions with the police after JonBenet was discovered missing but before her body was found in the Ramseys' house:

The police ask Patsy these same questions about who might have been angry or acting strangely, and she begins to think about our cleaning lady. Linda Hoffmann-Pugh had called Patsy a couple of days before Christmas, very distraught and in tears. Linda said her sister, who was also her landlord, was going to evict her if she didn't come up with the past-due rent. She asked Patsy if she could borrow twenty-five hundred dollars to cover it. Patsy had consoled Linda and agreed to lend her the money. In fact, Patsy had intended to leave the check for Linda on the kitchen counter before leaving for Michigan; Linda would let herself in the house and pick it up while we were gone for the holidays.

Patsy remembers that her mother, Nedra Paugh, had said that Linda had remarked to her at one time, "JonBenet is so pretty; aren't you afraid that someone might kidnap her?" Now those comments seem strangely menacing.

Finding the phone number in her digital Rolodex, Patsy tells a police officer where Linda lives in Ft. Lupton, Colorado. Patsy later tells me she was thinking, If it's Linda, it's okay, because she is a good, sweet person. She is just upset. She may need the money, but she won't hurt JonBenet.

The police tell us they will arrange for the Ft. Lupton police to drive by Linda's house to see if they notice anything unusual, but they don't want to alert anyone there that they are being watched.

The Death of Innocence, supra, 19-20.

Hoffmann-Pugh alleges in her complaint that the statements in this passage are false, that the Ramseys know that they are false, and that they were made with the intent to create an impression that Hoffmann-Pugh is a suspect in the murder. Hoffmann-Pugh claims that her sister was not going to evict her and that she did not make the above statement to Nedra Paugh or anyone else. She also claims that the statement "If it's Linda, it's okay, because she is a good, sweet person. She is just upset. She may need the money, but she won't hurt JonBenet" is a deliberate falsehood because Hoffmann-Pugh did not murder JonBenet. Hoffmann-Pugh claims she knows that this passage is a deliberate falsehood because Patricia Ramsey killed her daughter and wrote a ransom note to cover it up and John Ramsey knew this and helped his wife in the cover-up. Both John and Patricia Ramsey deny any involvement in the murder of their daughter.

The complaint alleges that the Ramseys repeated the false allegation that Hoffmann-Pugh was a murder suspect in television interviews promoting their book and in the print media. It identifies no specific statements outside the book, but alleges that the unidentified statements constitute libel and slander per se. The complaint also alleges that as a result of those statements and the book Hoffmann-Pugh has been the subject of heightened, unwelcome, and unflattering media scrutiny, and has been exposed to hatred, contempt, and ridicule in her small community.

The Ramseys moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. The district court concluded that because Hoffmann-Pugh did not identify in her complaint or in her response to the Ramseys' motion to dismiss any specific offending oral statements the Ramseys made to the media, her claims based upon statements outside the book had been abandoned. The district court then granted the Ramseys' motion to dismiss because the passage from the book that Hoffmann-Pugh relied upon for her libel claim was nondefamatory as a matter of law or, alternatively, because the statements in the passage were nonactionable statements of opinion. Hoffmann-Pugh appeals the district court's judgment insofar as it concerns the passage in the book, but does not contest the ruling that she abandoned her claims involving statements made outside the book.

We review a dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) de novo, applying the same standard as the district court did. S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist. v. Montalvo, 84 F.3d 402, 406 (11th Cir.1996). The allegations in the complaint must be taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Linder v. Portocarrero, 963 F.2d 332, 334 (11th Cir.1992) (citation omitted). A complaint may not be dismissed unless the plaintiff can prove no set of facts which would entitle him to relief. Id. (citations omitted).

Under Georgia law, libel is "a false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print, writing, pictures, or signs, tending to injure the reputation of the person and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule." O.C.G.A. § 51-5-1(a). Libel per se consists of a charge that one is guilty of a crime, dishonesty, or immorality, and the words must be defamatory on their face.1 Zarach v. Atlanta Claims Ass'n, 231 Ga.App. 685, 688, 500 S.E.2d 1 (1998); Eidson v. Berry, 202 Ga.App. 587, 588, 415 S.E.2d 16 (1992) (citation omitted). An essential element of libel is a published defamatory statement. Mead v. True Citizen, Inc., 203 Ga.App. 361, 362, 417 S.E.2d 16 (1992). In determining whether a statement is defamatory, a court should read and construe the publication as a whole, id., and in the sense in which the readers to whom it is addressed would understand it. Ledger-Enquirer Co. v. Brown, 214 Ga. 422, 424, 105 S.E.2d 229 (1958); Mead, 203 Ga.App. at 362, 417 S.E.2d 16.

As a general rule, the question of whether a published statement is defamatory is a question for the jury. Mead, 203 Ga.App. at 362, 417 S.E.2d 16 (citation omitted). However, if the statement is not ambiguous and can reasonably have but one interpretation, the question is one of law for the court. Id. After reading and construing the publication as a whole, the court "may find that it is not defamatory, that it is defamatory, or that it is ambiguous and the question is one for a jury." Id. (citation omitted).

The "publication" at issue here is the entire book, which was properly before the court on the motion to dismiss because Hoffmann-Pugh referred to it in her complaint and it is central to her claims. See Bryant v. Avado Brands, Inc., 187 F.3d 1271, 1278-81 & n. 16 (11th Cir.1999) (in securities class action, relevant documents filed with SEC could be considered on motion to dismiss because there was little question of their authenticity, the plaintiffs were well aware of their existence, and the statements at issue in the case should have been read in context). Neither party disputes that the entire book was properly before the district court and is properly before this Court. We must examine the entire book in order to determine if the statements about which Hoffmann-Pugh complains are unambiguous and can have but one reasonable interpretation, or whether the question of their meaning is for the jury.

Hoffmann-Pugh contends that the statements in the passage we have quoted from the book are capable of conveying to the average reader the impression that she is a legitimate murder suspect. She asserts that those statements, taken in the context of a book about an unsolved murder that also points out various "suspects" the Ramseys believe should be investigated, show that the Ramseys intended to convey the impression that Hoffmann-Pugh had kidnapped, if not actually murdered, their daughter. She argues that the passage, at the very least, imputes the crime of kidnapping to her.

However, when the book as a whole is considered, the statements in the passage at issue are not defamatory under Georgia law. First, the passage does not state that either the Ramseys or the police consider Hoffmann-Pugh a suspect or that they believe that she had actually committed any crime. In fact, the passage suggests that the Ramseys did not believe that Hoffmann-Pugh would hurt their daughter if she had kidnapped her and reflects their belief that Hoffmann-Pugh was a "good, sweet person." Not only that, but a few pages later in the same chapter, the Ramseys point out that their daughter was not actually kidnapped, but instead was murdered in their house, which means the statements cannot be construed as suggesting that Hoffmann-Pugh committed the crime of...

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