CHARLOTTESVILLE — The McClatchy Co. has fired back against a defamation lawsuit from Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., arguing in a recent motion to dismiss that Virginia is an improper venue.
Charlottesville-based attorney Steven Biss filed the $150 million lawsuit in April on behalf of Nunes, alleging that McClatchy — which owns several newspapers across the country — conspired with Virginia political operative Elizabeth Mair to defame the Republican representative and interfere with his investigations into Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russian election interference.
The suit cites a May 2018 article from The Fresno Bee — headlined “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event” — that details a 2016 lawsuit filed against Alpha Omega Winery by a former employee who alleged that she suffered civil rights violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and sexual harassment while working a charity cruise.
Nunes, The Fresno Bee and McClatchy are all based in California, and McClatchy does not operate any papers in Virginia, though Biss argued in his filing that the company distributes to the state physically, digitally and via broadcast. Despite this, the lawsuit was filed in Albemarle County Circuit Court.
However, in a recent motion to dismiss, the company took issue with the venue of the lawsuit, arguing that Virginia’s long-arm statute does not allow the lawsuit to take place in Albemarle.
“Even if Virginia’s long-arm statute reached McClatchy, exercising jurisdiction over McClatchy would violate federal due process,” the motion reads. “There is no general jurisdiction because McClatchy has not purposefully directed any activities at Virginia, nor do Plaintiff’s claims arise out of any activities allegedly directed at Virginia by McClatchy.”
A support memorandum expands upon this claim while simultaneously attacking the congressman’s attempts to litigate claims McClatchy describes as lacking merit.
“There is no claim here, despite a powerful politician’s demand for $150,000,000 because his local newspaper (whose repeated past endorsements he seemed happy to accept) fairly reported something he does not like,” the memorandum reads.
According to the article from which the suit stems, a former employee alleged in a lawsuit that while working a cruise gifted by the winery for charity donations in 2015, she was subjected to sexual harassment from various men on the cruise who partook in cocaine and had engaged in relations with sex workers, some of whom appeared to be underage.
The article does not claim Nunes was on board the cruise and clarifies that it is “unclear” whether he was aware of the lawsuit or the cruise.
Alpha Omega Winery — of which Nunes is a partial owner — later settled the suit for an undisclosed sum.
According to McClatchy’s memorandum, Nunes has never provided a statement, rebuttal or “purported correction” to the article.
In April, several legal experts posited that Nunes likely chose Virginia as the venue because of the state’s comparably weak anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation statute, which is less robust than California’s.
McClatchy’s filing appears to back up this theory, requesting that, if Nunes wishes to pursue this legal action, he do so in California.
“Unlike Virginia’s anti-SLAPP statute, California’s anti-SLAPP statute gives defendants the right to obtain attorneys’ fees and costs for defending ‘strategic lawsuits against political participation,’ like this one,” the memorandum reads.
The filing goes on to combat other claims made in the original complaint, contending that McClatchy does not broadcast news in Virginia and does not “regularly and systematically” do business in the commonwealth.
McClatchy also takes issue with claims that Nunes suffered harm in Virginia, arguing that Nunes’ complaint does not specify that the congressman suffered harms in the state.
“Any such harm presumably occurred where the plaintiff was born, raised and resides (California), or where he works (California or Washington D.C.),” the memorandum reads.
The complaint also alleges that McClatchy is an investor in the Charlottesville-based company Moonlighting and owns property in the city. However, McClatchy’s response claims they do not own any property in Charlottesville and “wrote off” their investment in Moonlighting in 2017, prior to when the alleged defamation took place.
Biss and Nunes had yet to respond to the motion as of Monday, and no hearing dates had been set in Albemarle Circuit Court.
The Albemarle County lawsuit is not the only one Nunes has filed in Virginia. Last month, Henrico County Circuit Court held the first motions hearing for a $250 million lawsuit Nunes filed in March against Twitter and several of its users.
The suit accuses Twitter of “knowingly hosting and monetizing content that is clearly abusive, hateful and defamatory.”
The defendants in the case made similar arguments to McClatchy, claiming that Virginia is not the proper venue to hear the case and that Twitter’s terms of service require all suits against the company to be filed in its home state of California.