RABOYA v. SHRYBMAN & ASSOCIATES Civ. A. No. 91-1829 (CRR).
777 F.Supp. 58 (1991)
Mary C. RABOYA, Plaintiff, v. SHRYBMAN & ASSOCIATES, et al., Defendants.
United States District Court, District of Columbia.
November 14, 1991.
Shirlie Norris Lake, Jeffrey J. Hines, Joel H. Oleinik of Eccleston & Wolf, Baltimore, Md., for defendants.
CHARLES R. RICHEY, District Judge.
Plaintiff has brought this action alleging libel per se, libel, negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress based upon the Defendants' publication of a letter reporting Plaintiff's alleged neglect of her sixteen-year-old pregnant daughter to the D.C. Department of Human Services. Defendants come before this Court on a Motion to Dismiss Count One of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint which consists of the libel per se claim.
Any written or printed statement which falsely charges another with the commission of a crime is libelous per se. See 53 C.J.S. Libel and Slander § 38. In the District of Columbia, in order to be actionable as libel per se, the contents of a defamatory publication must
Farnum v. Colbert,
Plaintiff in this case has been "accused of child neglect", or more specifically, of "failing to provide for her sixteen-year-old pregnant daughter." See Plaintiff's Amended Complaint at 2-3, ¶ 9; Plaintiff's Opposition to Motion to Dismiss Count One at 2. In the District of Columbia, child neglect constitutes a civil statutory infraction, governed by D.C.Code § 16-2301 et seq. (1981). Child neglect is not a criminal offense in the District of Columbia, and libel per se requires the false imputation of a crime. Farnum v. Colbert, supra. Both Plaintiff and Defendants concede this point. See Plaintiff's Opposition to Motion to Dismiss Count One at 1; Defendants' Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion to Dismiss Count One at 2. The issue, therefore, is whether the Defendants' accusation of child neglect can, nevertheless, constitute libel per se.
Plaintiff argues that the "actions of the Defendants in imputing the statutory infraction of child neglect to Plaintiff is analogous to imputation of a crime...." Plaintiff's Amended Complaint at 4, ¶ 14. In support of her argument, Plaintiff emphasizes the various penalties that accompany a violation of child neglect. For instance, the allegation of neglect can lead to the issuance of a summons and petition to appear before a judge. In addition, if a person is found to have violated the child neglect statute, he or she may risk having the child temporarily taken out of his or her custody, and may be subject to orders of the court system and the Department of Human Services. See Plaintiff's Opposition to Motion to Dismiss Count One at 3. Plaintiff concludes that these penalties can be analogized to punishment, and that "moral turpitude can certainly be inferred from an accusation of child neglect." Plaintiff's Opposition to Motion to Dismiss
Defendants refute Plaintiff's argument, stressing that an imputation of a crime is necessary for a libel per se action. Defendants also contend that "under the District of Columbia Code, a parent's duty under criminal law to adequately provide for a child extends only to the age of fourteen (14) years." Because Plaintiff's daughter was sixteen (16) years old at the time in question, there can be no imputation of a crime. See Defendants' Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion to Dismiss Count One at 2.
After reviewing the pleadings in this case and the relevant caselaw in the District of Columbia pertaining to libel per se, the Court finds that the accusation by Defendants concerning Plaintiff's alleged neglect of her daughter does not impute the commission of a crime by the Plaintiff. First and foremost, the Court takes notice that there are two statutes in the District of Columbia addressing the treatment of children. D.C.Code § 16-2301 et seq., sets forth the statutory infraction of child neglect. D.C.Code § 22-901, on the other hand, sets forth the criminal offense for cruelty to children. While similar types of conduct trigger the application of each statute, the proceedings that follow the violation of each statute "is profoundly different in purpose and character." In re S.K. and V.L.,
Similarly, Plaintiff's argument that the penalties resulting from a child neglect charge are analogous to the punishment afforded to criminal violators does not convince this Court to treat her action as a libel per se. In fact, the neglect statute does not provide for indictment or criminal punishment such as fines or imprisonment. Farnum v. Colbert, supra, requires that such punishment measures be at issue. Furthermore, because the statutory scheme for child neglect involves at most a temporary suspension of parental rights, due process only requires that a finding of neglect be based on a preponderance of evidence. See In the Matter of N.H.,
There are distinct differences between an action in libel and an action in libel per se. A defamatory publication need only be injurious to the reputation of another to constitute libel, while libel per se requires an actual imputation of a criminal offense. See Smith v. District of Columbia,
Therefore, it is, by this Court, on this 14th day of November, 1991,
ORDERED that Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Count One of Plaintiff's Complaint shall be, and hereby is, GRANTED insofar as it alleges a claim of libel per se, and the
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