TASHIMA, Circuit Judge.
Plaintiffs Scott Miller and Michael Spaulding ("Plaintiffs") are Seattle police officers who claim they were defamed by Defendant Kshama Sawant, a member of the Seattle City Council, through comments Sawant made about a deadly police shooting in which Plaintiffs were involved. The district court dismissed Plaintiffs' defamation claims on the ground that their third amended complaint ("complaint" or "TAC") failed adequately to allege that
Under the governing federal pleading standard, Plaintiffs plausibly have alleged that Sawant's communications were of and concerning them. First, Sawant's own words suggest that her remarks were directed not only at the police generally, but also at the individual officers involved in the shooting. She told the crowd that the shooting constituted "a blatant murder at the hands of the police," and she called for the Seattle Police Department to be held accountable "for their ... individual actions." TAC ¶ 37. Second, the complaint plausibly alleges that some of those who read or heard Sawant's remarks—Plaintiffs' families, friends, and colleagues, as well as members of the general public— knew that Plaintiffs were the officers involved in the shooting. TAC ¶¶ 45-46, 48. Third, the complaint plausibly alleges that these readers and listeners understood that Sawant's remarks were directed at Plaintiffs. These allegations are sufficient.
In concluding otherwise, the district court reasoned that "[t]he statements Councilmember Sawant made do not target or single out Plaintiffs or any specific officers, but rather speak to broader issues of police accountability." Miller v. Sawant, No. C18-506 MJP, 2020 WL 7714414, at *3 (W.D. Wash. Dec. 29, 2020). At most, however, the district court has identified one reasonable interpretation of Sawant's words, not the only reasonable interpretation. Where a communication is capable of two meanings, one defamatory and one not, it is for a jury, not a judge, to determine which meaning controls. See Swartz v. World Publ'g Co., 57 Wn.2d 213, 356 P.2d 97, 98 (1960) (en banc). As we explained in Church of Scientology of California v. Flynn, 744 F.2d 694 (9th Cir. 1984), at this stage of the case, a "court's inquiry is not to determine if the communications may have an innocent meaning but rather to determine if the communication reasonably carries with it a defamatory meaning." Id. at 696 (quoting Forsher v. Bugliosi, 26 Cal.3d 792, 163 Cal.Rptr. 628, 608 P.2d 716, 722 (1980)). Here, Sawant's words reasonably carry with them the defamatory meaning Plaintiffs have assigned to them. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment and remand for further proceedings.
In February 2016, Plaintiffs shot and killed Che Taylor, a Black man, while attempting to make an arrest. TAC ¶¶ 27-32.
Plaintiffs filed this action against Sawant in 2018, claiming that she had defamed them by falsely accusing them of racial profiling and murder.
Specifically, with respect to Sawant's February 2016 remarks, the complaint alleges:
TAC ¶¶ 45-46.
Similarly, with respect to Sawant's June 2017 remarks, the complaint alleges:
TAC ¶ 48.
The district court dismissed Plaintiffs' defamation claims on the ground that the complaint failed plausibly to allege that Sawant's remarks were of and concerning them. See Miller, 2020 WL 7714414, at *3-4. The court concluded that "[t]he statements Councilmember Sawant made do not target or single out Plaintiffs or any specific officers, but rather speak to broader issues of police accountability." Id. at *3. The court further concluded that, because Sawant's "statements do not single out individual police officers," it was irrelevant that Plaintiffs' family, friends, and colleagues, and members of the general public, knew that Plaintiffs were the officers involved in the Taylor shooting and understood Sawant's remarks to be directed at Plaintiffs. Id. at *4. The court reasoned that "[c]ontextualizing Councilmember Sawant's statements with unique information held by family and friends would impermissibly alter the meaning of [Sawant's] otherwise non-individualized statements." Id.
"We review de novo challenges to a dismissal for failure to state a claim
A. Plaintiffs Need Not Plead the Of-and-Concerning Element with Convincing Clarity
The parties disagree about whether a heightened pleading requirement applies here. We hold that it does not.
Under Washington law, "[t]he elements a plaintiff must establish in a defamation case are falsity, an unprivileged communication, fault, and damages." Mohr v. Grant, 153 Wn.2d 812, 108 P.3d 768, 773 (2005) (en banc).
First, the Washington cases upon which Sawant relies apply the convincing clarity standard only at summary judgment, not at the pleading stage. Although the Washington courts have held that "a defamation plaintiff resisting a defense motion for summary judgment must establish a prima facie case by evidence of convincing clarity," Mark v. Seattle Times, 96 Wn.2d 473, 635 P.2d 1081, 1089 (1981) (en banc) (emphasis added), they have not applied this requirement outside the summary judgment context. They have made clear, for instance, that the convincing clarity standard does not apply at trial. As the Washington Supreme Court stated in Duc Tan v. Le, 177 Wn.2d 649, 300 P.3d 356 (2013) (en banc), "[n]either the common law nor the First Amendment, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court, requires proof of any element of a defamation action, other than actual malice, by evidence of convincing clarity." Id. at 366 n.5 (quoting Richmond v. Thompson,
Second, even if Sawant could show that Washington courts apply a convincing clarity standard at the pleading stage, that standard would not apply here. Pleading in federal court is governed by Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, not state pleading requirements. "Under the Erie doctrine, however, it is long since settled that federal courts sitting in diversity apply state substantive law and federal procedural law." Hyan v. Hummer, 825 F.3d 1043, 1046 (9th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Verizon Del., Inc. v. Covad Commc'ns Co., 377 F.3d 1081, 1091 (9th Cir. 2004) ("[p]rocedural state laws are not used in federal court if to do so would result in a direct collision with a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure." (internal citations omitted.) Moreover, "the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure impose no special pleading requirements for defamation." Croixland Props. Ltd. P'ship v. Corcoran, 174 F.3d 213, 215 n.2 (D.C. Cir. 1999).
Plaintiffs, therefore, need not plead the of-and-concerning element with
B. The Complaint Plausibly Alleges That Sawant's Statements Were Of and Concerning the Plaintiffs
The district court rejected the complaint on the ground that no reasonable person could conclude that Sawant's remarks concerned the individual officers who shot Taylor. In the district court's view, "[t]he statements Councilmember Sawant made do not target or single out Plaintiffs or any specific officers, but rather speak to broader issues of police accountability." Miller, 2020 WL 7714414, at *3.
We disagree. First, although Sawant's remarks appear aimed, at least in part, at the police generally, some of her language suggests that her words refer specifically to the officers who shot Taylor. Sawant asserted that Taylor's death was "a blatant murder at the hands of the police," and she called for the police to be held "accountable for their reprehensible actions, their individual actions. We need justice on the individual actions...." TAC ¶ 37. This language suggests that Sawant was singling out Plaintiffs—characterizing them as murderers and calling for them to be held individually accountable.
TAC ¶ 45. These allegations are neither conclusory nor implausible. Hence, they are entitled to a presumption of truth at this stage of the proceedings. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79, 129 S.Ct. 1937. Indeed, they are precisely the kind of allegations that we previously said Plaintiffs could rely on plausibly to plead the of-and-concerning element. See Miller, 811 F. App'x at 411 ("Because Plaintiffs may be able to plead additional facts to show that Sawant's remarks can reasonably be understood as referring to them, such as who heard the remarks, and whether anyone identified Plaintiffs as the subject of them, we cannot say that amendment would be futile." (emphasis added)). Like Sawant's own words, these allegations support the inference that Sawant's remarks can reasonably be understood to refer to Plaintiffs.
It may be, as the district court surmised, that some listeners or readers would understand Sawant's remarks as communicating solely criticism of the police generally. But that is only one reasonable meaning of the remarks, not the only such meaning. As we explained in Church of Scientology, the "court's inquiry is not to determine if the communications may have an innocent meaning but rather to determine if the communication reasonably carries with it a defamatory meaning." 744 F.2d at 696 (quoting Forsher, 163 Cal.Rptr. 628, 608 P.2d at 722). A court determines only whether a communication is capable of defamatory meaning, while "[t]he jury determines whether a communication, capable of a defamatory meaning, was so understood by its recipient." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 614 (1977); accord Swartz, 356 P.2d at 98.
For the above reasons, we hold that the TAC plausibly pleads that Sawant's statements were of and concerning Plaintiffs. The district court erred by ruling otherwise.
Sawant's arguments to the contrary lack merit.
We reject Sawant's argument that this case is controlled by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964). In Sullivan, the plaintiff argued that an advertisement was "of and concerning" him because it criticized certain acts of the police department, which he oversaw in his capacity as a city commissioner. The Supreme Court held that there was insufficient evidence to show that the advertisement was of and concerning the plaintiff. Id. at 288-92, 84 S.Ct. 710. This conclusion turned on the fact that the plaintiff had no "personal involvement in the acts in question." Id. at 288-89, 84 S.Ct. 710. The plaintiff's theory instead relied on "the bare fact that he was in overall charge of the Police Department." Id. at 289, 84 S.Ct. 710. The Court held that this single fact was insufficient. To hold otherwise, the Court explained, would unduly stifle criticism of the government:
Id. at 291-92, 84 S.Ct. 710; accord Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 80, 86 S.Ct. 669, 15 L.Ed.2d 597 (1966) ("[I]n the absence of sufficient evidence that the attack focused on the plaintiff, an otherwise impersonal attack on governmental operations cannot be utilized to establish a libel of those administering the operations.").
Sullivan's reasoning is inapplicable here. First, Plaintiffs were personally involved in the acts in question—the Taylor shooting. As the California Court of Appeal has observed, "an entirely different picture would have been presented [in Sullivan] had the plaintiffs been police officers who were personally involved in the incidents referred to." Mullins v. Brando, 13 Cal.App.3d 409, 91 Cal.Rptr. 796, 801 (1970). Second, this case does not involve an "impersonal attack on government operations," and Plaintiffs do not administer the Seattle Police Department. See Rosenblatt, 383 U.S. at 80, 86 S.Ct. 669. The libel-on-government concerns underlying Sullivan, therefore, are absent here.
Sawant places great emphasis on the fact that she did not identify Plaintiffs by name in her remarks. This fact is not dispositive. Under Washington law, as under defamation law generally, "defamatory words referring to ascertainable persons are actionable to the same extent as those referring to designated persons." Olympia Waterworks v. Mottman, 88 Wn. 694, 153 P. 1074, 1075 (1915) (per curiam). As the Washington Supreme Court has explained:
This principle applies here. Sawant did not identify Plaintiffs by name, but (1) her words can reasonably be understood as referring to the officers involved in the Taylor shooting, (2) readers and listeners knew that Plaintiffs were the officers involved in the shooting, and (3) those readers and listeners understood Sawant's remarks to refer to Plaintiffs. These allegations are sufficient to plead that Sawant's remarks were of and concerning Plaintiffs.
Sawant also relies on case law in which "courts have repeatedly dismissed defamation
Plaintiffs, on the other hand, cite several cases in which, on facts more analogous to those presented here, courts have upheld defamation claims: Cushman v. Day, 43 Or.App. 123, 602 P.2d 327, 330-31 (Ct. App. 1979) (unnamed officers who responded to a labor protest, and were subjects of the statement that "[t]here'll be criminal charges filed against every officer that was out there this morning," stated a claim for relief); Mullins, 91 Cal. Rptr. at 802-03 (although the defendant's statements implying that Oakland police officers had murdered a member of the Black Panthers did not designate the officers by name, the court concluded that the officers involved in the shooting had adequately alleged that the statements were of and concerning them).
Sawant also argues that she cannot be held liable, even if readers and listeners reasonably understood her remarks to refer to Plaintiffs, because she was not responsible for making Plaintiffs' identities public. Quoting Vantassell-Matin v. Nelson, 741 F.Supp. 698, 710 (N.D. Ill. 1990), she argues that,
She maintains that she "cannot be held liable for the conclusions that `family, friends, and colleagues' and `members of the general public' reached based on information that they acquired from elsewhere."
Apart from Vantassell-Matin, however, we can find no support for this novel proposition. The law is clear that "defamatory words referring to ascertainable persons are actionable to the same extent as those referring to designated persons." Olympia Waterworks, 153 P. at 1075; accord Restatement (Second) of Torts § 564 cmt. b (1977). And the authorities make no distinction between information acquired from the speaker and information acquired from other sources.
In any event, even if Vantassell-Matin were correct on the law, it would not apply here. The critical fact in Vantassell-Matin was that the plaintiffs' identities were not ascertainable at the time the allegedly defamatory statements were made. 741 F. Supp. at 710. Here, by contrast, the complaint alleges that Plaintiffs' family,
Sawant also raises a policy argument: "If police officers could transform their political critics into defamation defendants by relying on the conclusions of `friends, families and colleagues' to satisfy the `of and concerning' requirement," she contends, "then police could weaponize litigation to silence their critics."
The law, however, makes clear that defamation claims may be based on how a communication is understood by individuals who know the plaintiffs. The law requires only that "persons knowing [the plaintiff] could and did understand that he was the one referred to in the publication." Spangler, 313 P.2d at 358-59. "It is not necessary that everyone recognize the [plaintiff] as the person intended; it is enough that any recipient of the communication reasonably so understands it." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 564 cmt. b (1977). "[I]t is enough that those who know or know of plaintiff (or even a single recipient) reasonably connect the plaintiff to the defendant based on circumstances or facts of which the recipient(s) has knowledge." David Elder, Defamation: A Lawyer's Guide § 1:30 (2020) (footnotes omitted); see also, e.g., Doe v. Hagar, 765 F.3d 855, 863 (8th Cir. 2014).
Sawant, moreover, mischaracterizes Plaintiffs' allegations. Plaintiffs do not rely solely on the conclusions of the family, friends, and colleagues to satisfy the of-and-concerning requirement. There are two sets of allegations in the complaint that support the conclusion that Sawant's statements can reasonably be understood to refer to Plaintiffs: Sawant's words themselves, and the conclusions drawn by Plaintiffs' family, friends, and colleagues. If Plaintiffs had relied solely on the allegation that a friend or family member understood a communication to refer to Plaintiffs, this might be a different case. As the Restatement points out, a communication is of and concerning the plaintiff when recipients reasonably understand that it was intended to refer to the plaintiff. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 564 (1977). "It is not necessary that everyone recognize the [plaintiff] as the person intended," but "the fact that only one person believes that the plaintiff was referred to is an important factor in determining the reasonableness of his belief." Id. cmt. b. Here, Plaintiffs' allegations regarding family, friends, and colleagues are consistent with Sawant's words themselves. Their allegation that the communications were of and concerning them, therefore, clears the plausibility threshold.
We emphasize, moreover, that, at this stage of the case, it is not our function to decide whether Sawant is liable for defaming Plaintiffs. We hold only that Plaintiffs have plausibly pleaded the single element of their defamation claims at issue on this appeal—the of and concerning element.
Finally, we reject Sawant's argument that Plaintiffs improperly relied on allegations of extrinsic facts. Plaintiffs
Ziebell v. Lumbermens Printing Co., 14 Wn.2d 261, 127 P.2d 677, 680-81 (1942); accord Purvis, 344 P.2d at 711 ("While the reasonable meaning of published words cannot be altered or extended by the pleading of innuendo, the pleader may be able to add meaning to words by a pleading of the circumstances surrounding the publication."). As the Restatement makes clear, "[e]xtrinsic facts may make it clear that a statement refers to a particular individual although the language used appears to defame nobody." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 564 cmt. b (1977).
The district court rejected Plaintiffs' allegations of extrinsic facts on the ground that "Councilmember Sawant's words themselves do not intrinsically reference Plaintiffs." Miller, 2020 WL 7714414, at *4 (citing Spangler, 313 P.2d at 358). What the district court elides, however, is that a reasonable person could understand Sawant's remarks as criticism of the officers involved in the Taylor shooting. In doing so, the district court erred.
In sum, we hold that the TAC plausibly alleges that Sawant's statements were of and concerning Plaintiffs. Accordingly, we reverse the dismissal of Plaintiffs' defamation and outrage claims.
Finally, Plaintiffs have requested that this case be reassigned to a different district judge on remand. In United States v. Reyes, 313 F.3d 1152, 1159 (9th Cir. 2002), we noted that "[a]bsent proof of personal bias on the part of the district judge," and no such proof has been proffered in this case, "remand to a different judge is proper only under unusual circumstances." One such "unusual circumstance" is "[a] district judge's adamance in making erroneous rulings," which "may justify remand to a different district judge." United States v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 785 F.2d 777, 780 (9th Cir. 1986) (citations omitted). While it is true that this is the second appeal from this district judge's rulings on the sufficiency of the complaint, see footnote 7, supra, in Sears, Roebuck, in which the case was reassigned to a different judge on remand, we noted that "[t]his is the fourth pretrial appeal in this case and the third time the government has appealed from dismissal of the indictment,"
• • •
The judgment is reversed and the case is remanded to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Costs on appeal are awarded to Plaintiffs.
TAC ¶ 37 (alteration in original).
TAC ¶ 47 (some alterations in original).