Holt v. Camus, CIV. PMJ 99-532.

Decision Date30 September 1999
Docket NumberNo. CIV. PMJ 99-532.,CIV. PMJ 99-532.
Citation128 F.Supp.2d 812
PartiesCarolyn M. HOLT, Plaintiff, v. Edward P. CAMUS, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Maryland

Carolyn M. Holt, Tampa, FL, Pro se.

Bruce L. Marcus, Marcus and Bonsib, Greenbelt, MD, for Edward P. Camus, defendants.

OPINION

MESSITTE, District Judge.

I.

Pro se Plaintiff Carolyn M. Holt sues Defendant Edward P. Camus for Defamation (Count I), False Light (Count II), and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (Count III). The action arises in connection with testimony Camus gave during a deposition and statements that he allegedly republished to Judge Darlene Perry of the Circuit Court for Prince George's County. Holt claims Camus made false statements regarding her sexual promiscuity and did so with the intent to jeopardize her career and reputation.

Camus has moved to dismiss the complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. He argues that any statements he might have made in the course of deposition testimony are absolutely immune from tort liability and that Holt, moreover, consented to the purportedly defamatory statements by her persistent questions. Alternatively, Camus seeks to have the case transferred to the Circuit Court for Prince George's County. Finally, he seeks sanctions, attorney's fees and costs pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11.

Having considered the pleadings, the Court will GRANT Camus's Motion to Dismiss in part and DENY it in part; DENY his Motion to Transfer; and DENY his Motion for Sanctions.

II.

From April 1993 to March 1998, Holt worked as an attorney at the law firm of Camus & Maloney ("Law Firm"), where Camus was a senior partner. In March 1998, she departed the Law Firm and sued it for breach of contract in Prince George's County Circuit Court, alleging that it had failed to pay her commissions for 1997 as required by her employment contract. See Carolyn M. Holt v. Camus & Maloney Partnership, No. CAL 98-06232. Camus, in turn, sued Holt in two separate cases in Prince George's County Circuit Court, alleging that (1) she embezzled funds from the Law Firm and (2) she breached her employment contract by providing free legal services to her family members while she was employed by the Law Firm. See Camus v. Holt, Case No. 98-22775; Camus v. Holt, Case No. 98-23404. All three cases, as yet unconsolidated, apparently are still pending in Prince George's County Circuit Court.

On November 11, 1998, during discovery in her state-based breach of contract case, Holt took Camus's deposition. During the deposition, Holt, acting pro se, asked Camus if he had "any files regarding the plaintiff at all." When Camus responded that he had a number of documents about her, she pressed him to disclose the nature of those documents. Camus balked, saying "I hesitate on this public document to respond to that," but Holt urged him to "go ahead." Camus then stated that he had three documents pertaining to Holt's moral activities which had "an effect on me as to whether or not you would make a good lawyer and whether or not you were morally fit to be a member of our firm." After a few more exchanges, including Camus's statement that the information at issue did not bear on the litigation at bar, Holt stated, "Why don't I go ahead and waive that and say, don't concern yourself with me and go ahead and disclose it." Camus thereupon described the documents, stating:

It [sic] contains information about trips you went on and I think some skiing — a couple of skiing trips and trips down to the beach in which you bragged about when you returned, everybody in the bus or most getting naked, mooning people outside the window and the group sex that was going on in the bus and at whatever ski place it was during the course of the particular vacation or trip where everybody was sexually involved, including yourself, with several other persons. The same allegations you were supposed to have commented on happening when you flew out west someplace — and I don't recall — where there was group sex and sex with several other people and most of the crowd engaged in the same conduct; generally the same activities went at the beach, which I assume would be during a summer, occurring when people were on the floor and you and others had to step over fornicating couples and that everybody was involved with group sex and multiple sex with multiple partners.

Deposition of Edward P. Camus, Esq., Nov. 11, 1998, 79:14 — 80:16.

Holt alleges the statements were false and that Camus, in addition to making them on deposition, republished them to Judge Perry. Holt's complaint, however, fails to indicate what precisely was republished or where and when the alleged republishing occurred. Based on these statements, Holt filed the present action in United States District Court.

IV.

Holt's first claim is for defamation. To recover for defamation under Maryland law, a plaintiff must establish four elements: (1) that the defendant made a defamatory statement regarding the plaintiff to a third person; (2) that the statement was false; (3) that the defendant was legally at fault in making the statement; and (4) that the plaintiff suffered harm thereby. See id. (citing Rosenberg v. Helinski, 328 Md. 664, 675, 616 A.2d 866 (1992)); Gooch v. Maryland Mech. Sys., Inc., 81 Md.App. 376, 389, 567 A.2d 954 (1990). The Maryland Court of Appeals has defined a defamatory statement as one which tends to expose a person to public scorn, hatred, contempt or ridicule, thereby discouraging others in the community from having a good opinion of, or from associating or dealing with, that person. Batson v. Shiflett, 325 Md. 684, 722-23, 602 A.2d 1191 (1992). Recovery is limited to actual damages unless the plaintiff can show that the defendant made the defamatory statements with malice. See Gooch, 81 Md.App. at 389, 567 A.2d 954.

Public policy, however, exempts certain written or oral communications that would otherwise be defamatory. McDermott v. Hughley, 317 Md. 12, 22, 561 A.2d 1038, 1043 (1989). Thus Maryland recognizes an absolute privilege with respect to judges, attorneys, parties and witnesses who publish defamatory material during the course of a judicial proceeding. See id. at 22, 561 A.2d 1038; Rosenberg v. Helinski, 328 Md. 664, 676, 616 A.2d 866, 871 (1992) (citations omitted). Statements uttered in the course of a trial or contained in pleadings, affidavits, depositions and other documents directly related to the case partake of this privilege; they cannot serve as the basis for an action for defamation. Gill v. Ripley, 352 Md. 754, 761—62, 724 A.2d 88, 92 (1999) (citations omitted); Miner v. Novotny, 304 Md. 164, 167, 498 A.2d 269 (1985). This so-called judicial immunity is extremely far-reaching. A witness is protected from liability even if his motive was malicious, if he knew the statement was false, and if his conduct was otherwise unreasonable. See id. The privilege, moreover, remains absolute regardless of whether the defamatory statements are relevant to the subject matter of the proceedings. See id. at 677, 498 A.2d 269 (citing Odyniec v. Schneider, 322 Md. 520, 526, 588 A.2d 786 (1991)).

Against this background, it is clear that Camus's statements made during his deposition — whether or not defamatory — are absolutely privileged against any cause of action for defamation. It is irrelevant whether the statements were made with malice, whether they were relevant to the breach of contract litigation, or whether Holt was harmed by them. Because participants must be able to speak freely during judicial proceedings, the individual's right to redress is necessarily curtailed. See Odyniec, 322 Md. 520 at 528, 588 A.2d 786.1

Holt's allegation that Camus repeated these defamatory remarks to Judge Perry, however, stands on different footing and — at least as of this time — is not dismissible. While the complaint provides little more than a bare allegation that the statements were made, courts "traditionally have viewed even poorly drafted complaints in a light most favorable to the plaintiff" and have granted Rule 12(b)(6) motions only in very limited circumstances. See Rogers v. Jefferson-Pilot Life Ins. Co., 883 F.2d 324, 325 (4th Cir.1989). The Fourth Circuit has held that "a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for relief should not be granted unless it appears to a certainty that the plaintiff would be entitled to no relief under any state of facts which could be proved in support of [her] claim." See Mylan Lab. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 n. 4 (4th Cir.1993) (internal citations omitted). Holt may or may not be able to plead the specifics of Camus's purported remarks to Judge Perry. She will, however, be given 15 days leave to re-plead as to that event.

The Court will therefore GRANT Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Count I as to Camus's deposition testimony and DENY it without prejudice as to the remarks purportedly made to Judge Perry.

V.

To recover for false light a form of invasion of privacy, Holt's second cause of action, a plaintiff must establish: (1) that she was exposed to publicity in a false light before the public; (2) that a reasonable person would find the publicity highly offense; and (3) that the actor had knowledge of or acted in reckless disregard of the publicized matter placing plaintiff in a false light. Hollander v. Lubow, 277 Md. 47, 55, 351 A.2d 421 (1976).

Under Maryland law, regardless of...

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