Nwanguma v. Trump, 091118 FED6, 17-6290

Docket Nº:17-6290
Opinion Judge:McKEAGUE, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
Party Name:Kashiya Nwanguma; Molly Shah; Henry Brousseau, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Donald J. Trump; Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., Defendants-Appellants.
Attorney:Michael A. Carvin, JONES DAY, Washington, D.C., for Appellants. Daniel J. Canon, DANIEL J. CANON, PSC, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellees. Michael A. Carvin, Anthony J. Dick, Andrew J. M. Bentz, Vivek Suri, JONES DAY, Washington, D.C., for Appellants. Gregory A. Belzley, BELZLEYBATHURST ATTORNEY...
Judge Panel:Before: McKEAGUE, GRIFFIN and WHITE, Circuit Judges. HELENE N. WHITE, Circuit Judge, concurring.
Case Date:September 11, 2018
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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Kashiya Nwanguma; Molly Shah; Henry Brousseau, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

Donald J. Trump; Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., Defendants-Appellants.

No. 17-6290

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 11, 2018

Argued: June 6, 2018

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky at Louisville. No. 3:16-cv-00247-David J. Hale, District Judge.

ARGUED:

Michael A. Carvin, JONES DAY, Washington, D.C., for Appellants.

Daniel J. Canon, DANIEL J. CANON, PSC, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Michael A. Carvin, Anthony J. Dick, Andrew J. M. Bentz, Vivek Suri, JONES DAY, Washington, D.C., for Appellants.

Gregory A. Belzley, BELZLEYBATHURST ATTORNEYS, Prospect, Kentucky, David N. Ward, CLAY DANIEL WALTON & ADAMS, PLC, Louisville, Kentucky, for Appellees.

Jon M. Greenbaum, LAWYERS' COMMITTEE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS UNDER LAW, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae.

Before: McKEAGUE, GRIFFIN and WHITE, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

McKEAGUE, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

Plaintiffs participated in a Trump for President campaign rally in Louisville in March 2016 . . . with the purpose of protesting. Perceived to be disruptive, they were unceremoniously ushered out after then-candidate Donald J. Trump said, "Get 'em out of here." Plaintiffs were pushed and shoved by members of the audience as they made their exit and now seek damages from Trump alleging his actions amounted to "inciting to riot," a misdemeanor under Kentucky law. The district court denied Trump's motion to dismiss the claim but certified its order for immediate interlocutory appeal. The court identified a two-part question for review: whether plaintiffs have stated a valid claim under Kentucky law and, if so, whether the First Amendment immunizes Trump from punishment under state law. We answer "no" to the first part, because plaintiffs' allegations do not satisfy the required elements of "incitement to riot." As to the second part, we hold "yes," Trump's speech enjoys First Amendment protection, because he did not specifically advocate imminent lawless action. The district court's denial of Trump's motion to dismiss the claim must therefore be reversed.

I.

BACKGROUND1

On March 1, 2016, a campaign rally was conducted at the Kentucky International Convention Center in Louisville. The rally was organized by defendant Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. ("the Trump campaign"), a Virginia corporation. During the rally, then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, a resident of New York, spoke for approximately 35 minutes. Plaintiffs in this action, Kashiya Nwanguma, Molly Shah and Henry Brousseau, all residents of Kentucky, attended the rally with the intention of peacefully protesting. Protesters' actions during Mr. Trump's address precipitated directions from Trump on five different occasions to "get 'em out of here." R. 1-1, Complaint at ¶ 32, Page ID 10. In response, members of the audience assaulted, pushed and shoved plaintiffs, and Brousseau was punched in the stomach. Defendants Matthew Heimbach and Alvin Bamberger, Ohio residents and Trump supporters, were in the audience during the rally. They participated in the assaults on plaintiffs.

Less than two months later, plaintiffs filed their complaint in the Jefferson Circuit Court in Louisville, naming Trump, the Trump campaign, Heimbach, Bamberger, and an unknown woman who punched Brousseau as defendants. The complaint sets forth state law tort claims for battery, assault, incitement to riot, as well as negligence, gross negligence and recklessness. The Trump defendants immediately removed the action to federal court based on the parties' diversity of citizenship. They then moved to dismiss the claims against them for failure to state claims upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

The district court granted the motion in part and denied it in part. Nwanguma v. Trump, 273 F.Supp.3d 719 (W.D. Ky. 2017). The court dismissed claims against the Trump defendants alleging they were vicariously liable for the assaultive actions of Heimbach, Bamberger and the unknown woman. The court reasoned that plaintiffs' allegations were insufficient to state a plausible claim that these individual defendants acted as agents of the Trump defendants. The court refused to dismiss the incitement-to-riot and negligence claims. In a later decision, however, the district court revisited and reversed its decision on the negligence claim against the Trump defendants. The court concluded that plaintiffs' negligent-speech theory was "incompatible with the First Amendment." In the same order, the court also certified its order denying dismissal of the incitement-to-riot claim as appropriate for immediate appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). A panel of this court granted the Trump defendants' ensuing petition for leave to appeal. In re Donald J. Trump, 874 F.3d 948 (6th Cir. 2017). Hence, the viability of the incitement-to-riot claim is the sole focus of this interlocutory appeal.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review

The order denying Trump's motion to dismiss is reviewed de novo. Frank v. Dana Corp., 646 F.3d 954, 958 (6th Cir. 2011). Under Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the allegations in the complaint are accepted as true, and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of plaintiffs. Bassett v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 528 F.3d 426, 430 (6th Cir. 2008). However, "a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation" need not be accepted as true. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The factual allegations must "raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. The complaint must state a claim that is plausible on its face, i.e., the court must be able to draw a "reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citation omitted). This "plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendants liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief." Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

B. Incitement to Riot

Plaintiffs' Count III claim alleges that defendant Trump incited a riot, a misdemeanor under the Kentucky Penal Code, Ky. Rev. Stat. § 525.040, actionable in damages under Ky. Rev. Stat. § 446.070. "A person is guilty of inciting to riot when he incites or urges five (5) or more persons to create or engage in a riot." Ky. Rev. Stat. § 525.040(1). "Riot," in relevant part, is defined as "a public disturbance involving an assemblage of five (5) or more persons which by tumultuous and violent conduct creates grave...

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