Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.Com, Inc.

Decision Date29 December 2009
Docket NumberNo. 08-2097.,08-2097.
Citation591 F.3d 250
PartiesNEMET CHEVROLET, LTD; Thomas Nemet, d/b/a/ Nemet Motors, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CONSUMERAFFAIRS.COM, INCORPORATED, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Andrew Friedman, Patton Boggs, LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellants. Jonathan David Frieden, Odin, Feldman & Pittleman, PC, Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Benjamin G. Chew, John C. Hilton, Patton Boggs, LLP, Washington, DC, for Appellants. Stephen A. Cobb, Odin, Feldman & Pittleman, PC, Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellee.

Before KING and AGEE, Circuit Judges, and James P. JONES, Chief United States District Judge for the Western District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge AGEE wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge KING joined. Judge JONES wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

OPINION

AGEE, Circuit Judge:

Consumeraffairs.com, Incorporated ("Consumeraffairs.com") operates a website that allows consumers to comment on the quality of businesses, goods, and services. The present suit concerns various posts on this website relating to automobiles sold or serviced by Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. ("Nemet"). Viewing certain of these postings as false and harmful to its reputation, Nemet brought suit against Consumeraffairs.com in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for defamation and tortious interference with a business expectancy.1 Consumeraffairs.com moved to dismiss these claims, under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as barred by § 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 ("CDA"), which precludes plaintiffs from holding interactive computer service providers liable for the publication of information created and developed by others.2 See 47 U.S.C. § 230(c)(1), (e)(3), & (f)(3); Zeran v. Am. Online, Inc., 129 F.3d 327, 330 (4th Cir.1997).

The district court granted the Rule 12(b)(6) motion, but gave Nemet permission to file an amended complaint. Upon filing of the amended complaint, Consumeraffairs.com again filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss based on § 230 of the CDA. The district court granted the motion to dismiss, stating that "the allegations contained in the Amended Complaint [d]o not sufficiently set forth a claim asserting that [Consumeraffairs.com] authored the content at issue. Furthermore, the allegations are insufficient to take this matter outside of the protection of the Communications Decency Act." Joint Appendix ("J.A.") at 303.

Nemet timely appealed the judgment of the district court and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the district court.3

I.

Nemet's claims, as pled in its amended complaint, are based on twenty specific posts on the Consumeraffairs.com website. As to these twenty posts, Nemet argues its pleading was sufficient to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion because the facts pled, viewed under the proper standard at this stage of the proceeding, show that Consumeraffairs.com was an "information content provider" under § 230(f)(3) of the CDA and, therefore, not entitled to CDA immunity. Further, Nemet contends that because its factual allegations are sufficient to negate the immunity bar claimed by Consumeraffairs.com, it should be entitled to discovery before any ruling on immunity would be appropriate as, for instance, under Rule 56 for summary judgment.

Before we discuss the specific language Nemet relies upon from its amended complaint, it is appropriate to briefly set forth the standard of review, the statutory and case-law parameters of immunity under the CDA, and the clarification of pleading standards recently addressed by the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

II.

Our review of the district court's ruling on a motion to dismiss is de novo. See Novell, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., 505 F.3d 302, 307 (4th Cir.2007). "Because the district court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss, our review is de novo. Like the district court, we must assume all [well-pled facts] to be true." Trulock v. Freeh, 275 F.3d 391, 399 (4th Cir.2001) (quotations and emphasis omitted). We also, like the district court, draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. See Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir.1999). "[B]ut we need not accept the legal conclusions drawn from the facts, and we need not accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions or arguments." Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir.2008) (quotations omitted).

III.

Recognizing that the Internet provided a valuable and increasingly utilized source of information for citizens, Congress carved out a sphere of immunity from state lawsuits for providers of interactive computer services to preserve the "vibrant and competitive free market" of ideas on the Internet. 47 U.S.C. § 230(b)(2); see also Zeran, 129 F.3d at 330. The CDA bars the institution of a "cause of action" or imposition of "liability" under "any State or local law that is inconsistent" with the terms of § 230. 47 U.S.C. § 230(e)(3). As relevant here, § 230 prohibits a "provider or user of an interactive computer service" from being held responsible "as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." Id. § 230(c)(1). Assuming a person meets the statutory definition of an "interactive computer service provider," the scope of § 230 immunity turns on whether that person's actions also make it an "information content provider." The CDA defines an "information content provider" as "any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service." Id. § 230(f)(3).

Taken together, these provisions bar state-law plaintiffs from holding interactive computer service providers legally responsible for information created and developed by third parties. See Fair Hous. Council v. Roommates.com, LLC, 521 F.3d 1157, 1162 (9th Cir.2008) (en banc). Congress thus established a general rule that providers of interactive computer services are liable only for speech that is properly attributable to them. See Universal Commc'n Sys., Inc. v. Lycos, Inc., 478 F.3d 413, 419 (1st Cir.2007). State-law plaintiffs may hold liable the person who creates or develops unlawful content, but not the interactive computer service provider who merely enables that content to be posted online. See Doe v. MySpace, Inc., 528 F.3d 413, 419 (5th Cir. 2008); Chicago Lawyers' Comm. for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. v. Craigslist, Inc., 519 F.3d 666, 672 (7th Cir.2008); Zeran, 129 F.3d at 330-31.

To further the policies underlying the CDA, courts have generally accorded § 230 immunity a broad scope.4 See Lycos, 478 F.3d at 418; Carafano v. Metrosplash.com, Inc., 339 F.3d 1119, 1123 (9th Cir.2003); Zeran, 129 F.3d at 331. This Circuit has recognized the "obvious chilling effect" the "specter of tort liability" would otherwise pose to interactive computer service providers given the "prolific" nature of speech on the Internet. Zeran, 129 F.3d at 331. Section 230 immunity, like other forms of immunity, is generally accorded effect at the first logical point in the litigation process. As we have often explained in the qualified immunity context, "immunity is an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability" and "it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial." Brown v. Gilmore, 278 F.3d 362, 366 n. 2 (4th Cir.2002) (quotations omitted) (emphasis in original). We thus aim to resolve the question of § 230 immunity at the earliest possible stage of the case because that immunity protects websites not only from "ultimate liability," but also from "having to fight costly and protracted legal battles." Roommates.com, 521 F.3d at 1175.

Nemet does not dispute that Consumeraffairs.com is an interactive computer service provider under the CDA. What Nemet contends is that Consumeraffairs.com is also an information content provider as to the twenty posts and, therefore, cannot qualify for § 230 immunity. In other words, Nemet's argument is that its amended complaint pleads sufficient facts to show Consumeraffairs.com is an information content provider for purposes of denying statutory immunity to Consumeraffairs.com at this stage in the proceedings.

Our analysis of the sufficiency of Nemet's pleading is informed by the Supreme Court's recent decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).5 Iqbal, a former high-interest detainee taken into custody after the attacks of September 11, 2001, brought a Bivens suit against several high-ranking executive branch officials, alleging infringements of his First and Fifth Amendment rights. See Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1943-44. He pled, among other things, that the defendant executive branch officials adopted a policy of labeling Arab Muslim men as high-interest detainees and subjecting them to "harsh conditions of confinement" based solely on their "religion, race, and/or national origin." Id. at 1951.

Because these allegations were "conclusory" restatements of the "elements of a constitutional discrimination claim," the Supreme Court refused to accord them an assumption of truth for purposes of weighing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Id. The Court also rejected the sufficiency of Iqbal's supporting factual allegations, including his claim that the federal government "detained thousands of Arab Muslim men." Id. Given the "more likely explanation[ ]" for these arrests, i.e., the Government's legitimate investigation into the September 11th attacks, the Court concluded that Iqbal's factual allegations did "not plausibly establish" the "purposeful, invidious...

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