Fourth Circuit Delivers First Amendment Ass-Kicking

June 28, 2013

This is not a Star Trek order.  There are no pithy jokes here.  There is, however, a shocking exposé of just how insidious the government can be in coercing silence when you speak out against outdated, incorrect, and even dangerous “conventional wisdom.”

Cooksey v. Futrell, et al., Case No. 12-2084, 2013 WL 3215240 at *1 (4th Cir. June 27, 2013).

Steve Cooksey ran a blog advocating a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet.  This diet and its permutations are generally known as known as a “paleo,” “primal” or “caveman” diet, and is based on eliminating historically recent additions to the human diet, such as processed grains.  This more or less inverts the USDA’s food pyramid (or triangle, depending on what generation you are), putting meat at the base of the pyramid with rough, leafy greens, and treating carbohydrate-laden foods like bread as less important.  Like anything people feel strongly about, the ambassadors of the paleo diet can be abrasive and annoying.  But, it works.

Cooksey’s backstory is remarkable, but surprisingly common among health advocates.  A Type II (adult-onset) diabetic, Cooksey was rushed to a hospital on the verge of a coma in 2009.  His dietitians advised him to eat a diet high in carbohydrates.  Cooksey, however, investigated matters himself and arrived at a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates.  His blood sugar normalized and he was able to stop using insulin.  With a combination of diet and exercise (rather than, say, “fat acceptance”), Cooksey lost 78 pounds and felt better than ever before.

Paying it forward, Cooksey opened his blog, diabetes-warrior.net, in early 2010.  Cooksey used the blog to talk about his diet and lifestyle changes. He even included a disclaimer that he was not a licensed medical profession and had no medical qualifications – similar to how legal bloggers are quick to reminder readers that nothing they say online is legal advice.  The overarching theme of Cooksey’s blog was that high-carbohydrate diets caused more diabetes.  During the months of December 2011 and January 2012, Cooksey’s blog had 20,000 unique visitors.

Then Cooksey made the mistake all new red-pill types do: He explained his views to a weak and deliberately helpless public.  In July 2012, Cooksey attended a nutritional seminar for diabetics.  The seminar’s speaker advocated a high-carbohydrate diet for diabetics; Cooksey responded by advocating a low-carbohydrate diet instead.  An attendee at the seminar was so “””offended””” that he or she reported Cooksey to the North Carolina Board for Dietetics/Nutrition (the “Board”), claiming Cooksey’s advocacy was actually the unlicensed practice of dietetics.  Under North Carolina law governing dietetics, only licensed dietitians may provide nutrition care services, which have a broad definition that includes:

a. Assessing the nutritional needs of individuals and groups, and determining resources and constraints in the practice setting.
b. Establishing priorities, goals, and objectives that meet nutritional needs and are consistent with available resources and constraints.
c. Providing nutrition counseling in health and disease.
d. Developing, implementing, and managing nutrition care systems.
e. Evaluating, making changes in, and maintaining appropriate standards of quality in food and nutrition services.

Under North Carolina law, each and every act of unlicensed practice of dietetics is a separate misdemeanor.

The Board contacted Cooksey.  It told him that he would need to change his website.  It also told him that it was statutorily entitled to get an injunction against him.  Cooksey, fearing civil action, reluctantly complied with the Board’s initial demands to change his website, removing parts that might have been considered “advice” to visitors.

The Board told Cooksey it would review his website and tell him what he could and couldn’t say without a dietitian’s license.  After reviewing Cooksey’s site, the Board got back to him with pages and pages of comments.  The Board’s message was clear: Fix it – or else.  Again, Cooksey acquiesced – this time in fear of civil and even criminal penalties.  Despite not communicating with the Board, it nevertheless sent Cooksey a letter, noting that he had made the requested changes, and tacitly warning Cooksey that it would “continue to monitor the situation.”

After receiving this letter, Cooksey filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the Board’s actions chilling his First Amendment protected speech.  He also sought a declaratory judgment that North Carolina’s statutes were unconstitutional both facially and as-applied.  The Board moved to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) for lack of standing and lack of ripeness, and 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.  The district court granted the motion, holding that “voluntarily removing parts of one’s website in response to an inquiry from a state licensing board is not a sufficient injury to invoke Article III standing.”  The court also found that Cooksey was not subject to actual or imminent enforcement of the Board’s draconian laws.

At first blush, it seems that the district court took an unusually charitable view toward the Board’s actions.  Many who read this blog would disagree with the outcome.  Cooksey disagreed.  And so, too, did the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit’s panel – which included former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sitting by designation – reviewed the dismissal de novo, or anew (conducting a new, independent analysis of the facts that were before the district court).  The Court of Appeals embarked on an analysis of justiciability with two old law school (and in one case, law practice) favorites, standing and ripeness.  The analysis is considerable, going on for many pages.  Some highlights are excerpted below:

On the question of standing:

In First Amendment cases, the injury-in-fact element is commonly satisfied by a sufficient showing of “self-censorship, which occurs when a claimant is chilled from exercising h[is] right to free expression.” Benham v. City of Charlotte, 635 F.3d 129, 135 (4th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted).

However, this anticipated cannot just be speculative or the fruit of conjecture.  The appeals court quickly outlined how Cooksey’s case allowed him to have standing, largely due to the Board’s aggression:

In the present case, we not only have evidence of specific and — unlike NCRL — unsolicited written and oral correspondence from the State Board explaining that Cooksey’s speech violates the Act, but we also have a plaintiff who stopped engaging in speech because of such correspondence, and an explicit warning from the State Board that it will continue to monitor the plaintiff’s speech in the future. See J.A. 18 (Compl. ¶ 63-64) (Burill told Cooksey “that he and his website were under investigation” and that the State Board “does have the statutory authority to seek an injunction to prevent the unlicensed practice of dietetics.”); id. at 39 (red-pen review) (“You should not be addressing diabetic’s specific questions. You are no longer just providing information when you do this, you are assessing and counseling, both of which require a license.”); id. at 66 (Burill email) (“[W]e would ask that you make any necessary changes to your site, and moreover, going forward, align your practices with the guidance provided.”); id. at 105 (Burill letter) (“[T]he Board reserves the right to continue to monitor this situation.”). Therefore, we have no trouble deciding that Cooksey’s speech was sufficiently chilled by the actions of the State Board to show a First Amendment injury-in-fact.

The Board’s aggression was also helpful to Cooksey in showing a credible threat of prosecution.  From there, his complaint easily satisfied the requirements of causation – that his injury was caused by the conduct he complained of – and redressibility, which requires a non-speculative likelihood that his injury would be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.

Unfortunately, the opinion gave some daylight to the Board’s position.  If the laws the Board enforces are professional regulations that do not abridge the First Amendment, such as certain limited limitations placed on attorney speech by state professional conduct rules, then Cooksey may ultimately not prevail.  However, because that is question of the case’s merits – how the facts and the law mesh in court – rather than one of standing, or Cooksey’s ability to bring his claim to Court in the first place, this potential defense cannot keep Cooksey out of court (for now).

As for ripeness:

Much like standing, ripeness requirements are also relaxed in First Amendment cases. See New Mexicans for Bill Richardson v. Gonzales, 64 F.3d 1495, 1500 (10th Cir. 1995) (“The primary reasons for relaxing the ripeness analysis in th[e] [First Amendment] context is the chilling effect that potentially unconstitutional burdens on free speech may occasion[.]”). Indeed, “First Amendment rights . . . are particularly apt to be found ripe for immediate protection, because of the fear of irretrievable loss. In a wide variety of settings, courts have found First Amendment claims ripe, often commenting directly on the special need to protect against any inhibiting chill.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

The Court then gave the Board a little more abuse for soiling its own bed.

In the same way, Cooksey’s claims present the question of whether the Act and actions of the State Board unconstitutionally infringe on Cooksey’s rights to maintain certain aspects of his website. No further action from the Board is needed: it has already, through its executive director, manifested its views that the Act applies to Cooksey’s website, and that he was required to change it in accordance with the red-pen review or face penalties.

In its conclusion, the court of appeals vacated the district court’s order dismissing Cooksey’s complaint and remanded the case for a proceeding on the merits.  The Board can always ask the Fourth Circuit to stay its mandate and grovel with thousands of others to be the 1% whose cert petition the Supreme Court grants.  If nothing else, it will buy them time.  Hopefully, this opinion will leave a mark on the Board and make abusive government entities everywhere think twice before making any “suggestions” to the lowly citizenry they benevolently manage.  Specifically for the Board, its bad dream just got another life, Freddy Krueger-style.

A closing thought: North Carolina does not have an Anti-SLAPP law – not even a mediocre one that could be made good, like Nevada’s (which, starting October 1, 2013, gets a nice octane boost).  While § 1983 claims allow prevailing non-governmental parties to seek their attorneys’ fees under § 1988(b), those fees are discretionary, while prevailing Anti-SLAPP fees are mandatory – and more expeditiously awarded.  While state law-based Anti-SLAPP laws do not always work as drafted in federal court, there is a serious question whether such a statute’s existence or use would have led to a different outcome without an appeal – or any litigation at all.


Nevada’s New Anti-SLAPP Law

June 25, 2013

Nevada's Anti-SLAPP law, freshly signed.

Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP law, freshly signed.

You may have noticed that the writing has been a bit slow as of late. Well, one of the things that has been taking our attention away has been an all-hands effort up in Carson City, working on getting a realanti-SLAPP law passed here in the Silver State.

We are proud to announce that the mission has been accomplished. Nevada officially has a new anti-SLAPP law it can be proud of.

For the last two years, the Legal Satyricon has been complaining about the inadequacy of Nevada’s existing anti-SLAPP law.  Notably, one judge suggested the possibility that the statute could be construed to only be used in lawsuits involving communications directly to a government agency, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the current statute did not allow for an immediate appeal of a special motion to dimiss.

Ever since I moved here in 2011, I’ve hoped to civilize Nevada with a meaningful anti-SLAPP law.

When Nevada’s legislative session commenced in February, the Randazza Legal Group team was a flurry of activity, drafting materials in support of a new Anti-SLAPP bill based on materials from throughout the country to present to the Legislature.  Rather than simply replicating the statutes in California, Washington, or Texas, though, the ultimate bill (SB 286) made specific, limited additions to broaden the scope of Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP statutes while maintaining innovative provisions within those laws that were uniquely Nevadan.

Marc Randazza and Nevada Governor, Brian Sandoval, with the freshly-signed Nevada Anti-SLAPP law.

Marc Randazza and Nevada Governor, Brian Sandoval, with the freshly-signed Nevada Anti-SLAPP law.

Armed with my dream statute in hand, I flew up to Carson City to present testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  My testimony focused on the need for a stronger Anti-SLAPP statute in Nevada, and the harm to individuals and businesses done by the consumption of public and private resources on the litigation of dubious claims against First Amendment-protected speech.  The Senate Judiciary Committee, and later the entire Nevada Senate, approved of the bill.  I then testified before the Assembly Judiciary Committee in support of the bill.  Like the Nevada Senate, the Assembly Judiciary Committee and the entire Nevada Assembly passed the bill.  The entire Nevada legislature had agreed that it was time to enhance Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP statutes so that they would embrace – and protect – a broader range of Constitutionally protected expression.  On June 3, 2013, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signed the bill into law.  The changes will take effect on October 1, 2013. The main changes are discussed below.  The full text of SB 286 as enacted by Governor Sandoval can be found here.

Expands the Breadth and Scope of Protected Speech.  The new law expands protected conduct to include any “communication made in direct connection with an issue of public interest in a place open to the public or in a public forum,” so long as the statement is truthful or made without knowledge of falsehood.

Allows For an Immediate Appeal of a Denied Anti-SLAPP Motion.   The new law modifies NRS 41.650 so that a movant is immune from any civil action­ – not just liability – from claims arising from his or her protected speech, which allows for an immediate appeal.

Expedites Judicial Consideration of Anti-SLAPP Motions.  Under the new law’s changes, the time for a court to rule on a motion after filing is reduced to 7 judicial days from 30 after the motion is served upon the plaintiff.

Creates a $10,000 Stick to Deter Frivolous Claims.  In addition to allowing for a movant’s recovery of costs and attorneys’ fees, the bill amends NRS 41.670 to allow the court to discretionarily award a successful movant up to $10,000 in addition to his or her reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees.  This serves as a significant disincentive and warning for those who might wish to pursue censorious litigation.

Creates SLAPP-Back Provision to Prevent Frivolous Anti-SLAPP Motions.  The bill amends 41.670 so that a court denying a special motion to dismiss must award the claimant to successfully defeat the Anti-SLAPP motion his or her costs and reasonable attorneys’ fees upon finding that the Anti-SLAPP motion was “frivolous or vexatious.” I believe this is necessary, lest the Anti-SLAPP law become a barrier to justice for those with supportable claims.

Retains Key Elements From Nevada’s Existing Laws.  While the bill represents a massive change to Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP laws, Nevada’s existing statutes had a number of powerful provisions that were unique among Anti-SLAPP provisions are fortunately still intact.  The Nevada Attorney General, or the “chief legal officer or attorney of a political subdivision” in Nevada may still “defend or otherwise support the person against whom the action is brought.” NRS 41.660(1)(b).  SB 286 also retains the successful Anti-SLAPP movant’s right to bring a separate action against the defeated plaintiff for compensatory damages, punitive damages, and the attorneys’ fees and costs for bringing the new action.

These changes bring Nevada into line with California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, and the District of Columbia as having the most comprehensive and progressive Anti-SLAPP statutes in the nation.  I am proud of these changes and the effort my Randazza Legal Group team put into effecting this critical update to Nevada’s Anti-SLAPP statutes.  We all look forward to seeing this statute in effect.


Nevada has a New Anti-SLAPP Law

June 24, 2013

Post updated here.


Alleged Copyright Troll’s Day in Court

March 12, 2013

No matter your opinion on U.S. copyright law, it is the law of the land. Copying a work without consent may be unlawful and subject the copier to damages. On this blog, and others, we’ve seen instances of legitimate and illegitimate copyright claims.

An entirely separate issue is the manner by which copyright claims are enforced. In the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, there have been concerns raised regarding certain attorneys, their firms, and (as the judge termed it) their “shell” companies. Yesterday, a hearing was held at which certain non-appearing attorneys affiliated with Prenda Law were invited to attend, as well as an attorney formerly associated with that firm. Ken White at Popehat attended and his writeup is here: http://www.popehat.com/2013/03/11/brett-gibbs-gets-his-day-in-court-but-prenda-law-is-the-star/

This is a case in which the Plaintiff even dismissed the case against the Defendant, but the Court is exploring whether there was fraud committed by the Plaintiff or its counsel in consolidated and related matters. Hearings like this generally do not occur, and apparently the non-appearing attorneys affiliated with Prenda appeared by counsel, rather than in person, which may have violated the court’s order (although they made a last-minute filing arguing they could not properly be compelled to attend). What is particularly interesting is that the subject lawyers and Plaintiffs have been intimately involved with the development of how Bittorrent claims are prosecuted, including early discovery orders, mass joinder, etc. Of note, it has become practice for a content provider to sue John Does, because all that is available is the IP address used to access a covered work. A subpoena is issued to the ISP, who may provide the identity of an account holder. Common practice is then to make a demand on the account holder or amend the complaint to identify them by name. Of concern by this court and others is that the account holder may not be the infringer. A content provider may need to engage in further discovery and investigation to find out who may have had access to the internet connection prior to naming the person as defendant. Recent rulings have suggested that just as you cannot simply sue the person who owns a telephone for a call that may have given rise to liability, you must sue the caller, you cannot simply sue the internet account holder. This court has questioned the Plaintiff’s and its attorneys’ efforts in identifying the infringer. Additional procedural concerns are raised in this case over who financially benefits in the litigation and how content has been transferred.

The docket in Ingenuity 13 v Doe, 2:12-cv-08333 is here:
http://ia601508.us.archive.org/28/items/gov.uscourts.cacd.543744/gov.uscourts.cacd.543744.docket.html


Required Reading – Jordan Rushie on Wisdom

January 27, 2013

Jordan Rushie writes about what a moron he was as a young associate in, Hubris.

I must confess some bias here. I represent Rushie in one little matter. I am co-counsel with him on multiple matters. But, this piece is why I am proud to call him a colleague. Achievements are great. I have had enough of them to know that they sometimes come from perfectly executed plans. But, I also know that achievements are sometimes the result of bad plans, bad decisions, and dumb luck.

A lawyer earns my respect more when he tells me about his fuck-ups and what he learned from them. Rushie has my respect.

Rushie’s post is a lesson that you can’t learn in law school — not because law school can’t teach it, but because law schools REFUSE to teach it.


David McKee, Are you a Tool?

September 5, 2012

I don’t know, but I think you might be learning a thing or two about the Streisand Effect.

Apparently, Dennis Laurion did not like Dr. McKee’s bedside manner, reviewing him thusly:

When I mentioned Dr. McKee’s name to a friend who is a nurse, she said, ‘Dr. McKee is a real tool!

Case was dismissed as being pure opinion, but reinstated on appeal.   It is now before the Minnesota Supreme Court.  Regardless of the outcome, gajillions more have seen the negative review.  Lawyers should counsel their clients on the potential of the Streisand Effect when handling cases such as this.

Source:  http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/168552176.html?refer=y


What What, Fair Use on a 12(b)(6)?

June 8, 2012

“What what, in the butt?” was the question recently before justices Easterbrook, Cudahy and Hamilton in the appeal of Brownmark Films LLC v. Comedy Partners from the Eastern District of Wisconsin. (Opinion)  At issue was whether South Park’s interpretation of Samwell’s “What What In The Butt,” as performed by Butters in the episode “Canada on Strike,” was non-infringing fair use under 17 U.S.C. § 107.  More interestingly, though, was that Comedy Partners raised the defense on a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss – without any discovery or opportunity therefor (see FRCP 56(d), formerly Rule 56(f)).  The Eastern District of Wisconsin agreed that South Parks’ rendition of What What In the Butt was fair use, and dismissed the Complaint at the pleading stage.

Brownmark did not include the original What What In the Butt video, nor South Park’s adaptation, in its Complaint.  South Park Digital Studios did, however, attach both videos to its motion to dismiss, relying on the incorporation by reference doctrine.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit resolved this issue in South Park’s favor:

Because the claim was limited to the production and distribution of a single episode, the district court was correct to rely solely on the two expressive works referenced in Brownmark’s amended complaint and attached to SPDS’s motion, as well as the allegations in the complaint, to decide on the fair use defense.

SPDS relies on the incorporation-by-reference doctrine to maintain that reliance on the attached works does not violate Rule 12(d), which requires that Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c) motions containing materials outside of the pleadings be converted into motions for summary judgment. It is well settled that in deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court may consider “documents attached to a motion to dismiss . . . if they are referred to in the plain- tiff’s complaint and are central to his claim.” Wright v. Assoc. Ins. Cos. Inc., 29 F.3d 1244, 1248 (7th Cir. 1994). In effect, the incorporation-by-reference doctrine provides that if a plaintiff mentions a document in his complaint, the defendant may then submit the document to the court without converting defendant’s 12(b)(6) motion to a motion for summary judgment. The doctrine prevents a plaintiff from “evad[ing] dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) simply by failing to attach to his complaint a document that prove[s] his claim has no merit.” Tierney v. Vahle, 304 F.3d 734, 738 (7th Cir. 2002). (Op. at 5)

But the Seventh Circuit noted a curious wrinkle to this analysis:

While the application of this doctrine to the present case would seem to allow SPDS’s action, no court of appeals has ruled that the content of television programs and similar works may be incorporated by reference. Several district courts have concluded that the doctrine does apply to such works. See, e.g., Burnett v. Twentieth Century Fox, 491 F. Supp. 2d 962, 966 (C.D. Cal. 2007); Zella v. E.W. Scripps Co., 529 F. Supp. 2d 1124, 1131-32 (C.D. Cal. 2007); Daly v. Viacom, 238 F. Supp. 2d 1118, 1121-22 (N.D. Cal. 2002). And we think it makes eminently good sense to extend the doctrine to cover such works, especially in light of technological changes that have occasioned widespread production of audio-visual works. The parties, however, did not brief this issue, and so we reserve the resolution of the question for a later date. (Op. at 5-6)

Ultimately finding that the Eastern District of Wisconsin was within its jurisdiction to grant dismissal, the appellate court engages in a relatively truncated fair use analysis under the four factors of 17 U.S.C. § 107.  The reason for the brevity?

Since Brownmark never opposed SPDS’s fair use argument in the district court, we consider the argument waived. (Op. at 9)

Ouch.  And, since it’s the Seventh Circuit, that means automatically shifting attorney’s fees and costs under 17 U.S.C. § 505.  What What In the Butt, Indeed.

Perhaps the overlooked gem of this opinion is that the Seventh Circuit has forever enshrined my favorite South Park meme: Internet Money.

The South Park Elementary school boys—Cartman, Stan, Kyle and But- ters—decide to create a viral video in order to accrue enough “Internet money” to buy off the striking Canadians. The boys create a video, “What What (In The Butt),” (WWITB) in which Butters sings a paean to anal sex. Within the show, the video is a huge hit, but the boys are only able to earn “theoretical dollars.”

As the South Park episode aptly points out, there is no “Internet money” for the video itself on YouTube, only advertising dollars that correlate with the number of views the video has had. It seems to this court that SPDS’s likely effect, ironically, would only increase ad revenue. Any effect on the derivative market for criticism is not protectable. Id. at 592. And the plaintiff has failed to give the district court or this court any concrete suggestion about potential evidence indicat- ing that the South Park parody has cut into any real market (with real, non-Internet dollars) for derivative uses of the original WWITB video. (Op.)

Of course, when I use “Internet Money,” it refers to settlements from BitTorrent infringers and others who pay for their wrongdoing.  But, it is evocative of the constant challenge of monetizing the digital ether of the World Wide Web.