The Communications Decency Act Meets Ashcroft v. Iqbal: The Fourth Circuit's Decision In Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com

A split Fourth Circuit affirmed the dismissal yesterday of a defamation claim against a consumer complaint website, in Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc. The Court found the Defendant, Consumeraffairs.com, to be entitled to immunity under the Communications Decency Act, relying on the heightened standard for considering a Motion to Dismiss from the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009). 

Even if you don't practice in an area that implicates the CDA, the Nemet case is significant for its further development of the Iqbal standard in the Fourth Circuit. It is another indication, after the opinion earlier this month in Francis v. Giacomelli, that the Court is becoming much more exacting on how Motions to Dismiss should be evaluated.

Background on the CDA

The CDA carves out a broad immunity from state law claims (like defamation claims) for providers of "interactive computer services." The Defendant, www.consumeraffairs.com, is such a provider. It runs a website soliciting complaints from consumers about businesses with which they've dealt.

The Fourth Circuit emphasized the breadth of the immunity, and the need to resolve its applicability "at the earliest possible stage of the case." In that respect, said the Court, the CDA immunity is much like the qualified immunity to which state officials are entitled.

The issue in Nemet was whether the Plaintiff had presented a complaint with enough plausibility to show that the Defendant fell outside the scope of the immunity because it was an "information content provider." Such a provider, per 47 U.S.C. §230(f)(3), is "any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service."

The Plaintiff, a Chevrolet dealer who had been lambasted in twenty posts on Defendant's website, offered two arguments why the Defendant wasn't entitled to immunity. The first was that the Defendant had participated in creating and developing the posts by the way it had structured its website and also through hands-on revision of the comments in question. The second was that some of the comments were fabricated by the Defendant, and it was therefore responsible for their content.

The Fourth Circuit rejected both arguments, though over a partial dissent.

The "Creation And Development" Claim Wasn't Plausible

On the argument about creation and development, Judge Agee, writing for the majority, distinguished the Ninth Circuit's decision in Fair Housing Council v. Roommates.com, LLC, 521 F.3d 1157 (9th Cir. 2008), a seminal CDA decision. There, the website operator wasn't entitled to immunity because it had specifically designed its website to develop unlawful content, which included requesting tthe sex, family status, and sexual orientations of the site users seeking housing as well as those of their desired roommates.

In Nemet, the Plaintiff said that the Defendant had structured its website to be a clearinghouse for class action lawyers seeking plaintiffs, and that it therefore wasn't entitled to immunity. The Court disagreed, and said "there is nothing unlawful about developing this type of content; it is a legal undertaking: Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, for instance, specifically provides for class-action suits."

Relying on Iqbal, the Court said that even assuming all the facts regarding the structure and design of the website were true, that this "does not show, or even intimate" that the Defendant had contributed to the allegedly false nature of the comments. Plaintiff, according to the Court, hadn't even shown that it was a "likely possibility" that the Defendant was an information content provider, and certainly not that this was "plausible" under Iqbal.

The Fourth Circuit also trashed the Chevy dealer's argument that the Defendant had been involved in developing or creating the content. It said that the Plaintiff hadn't pled any facts showing the nature of the claimed revising and redrafting of the comments, or that such rewriting went beyond a "traditional editorial function." It invoked Iqbal's admonition that "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice."

The Fabrication Claim Was "Pure Speculation"

The Court then turned to the Plaintiff's claim that the Defendant had fabricated the posts and was therefore responsible for their substance and content. It dismissed these allegations as "pure speculation and a conclusory allegation" that the Defendant had created the information. It said, relying on Iqbal, that these were "bare assertions 'devoid of further factual enhancement,' which are not entitled to an assumption of truth."

The dismissal of the "fabrication claim" provoked a dissent from Judge James P. Jones of the Western District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

He found some of the allegations made by the Plaintiff to support the fabrication claim rendered it plausible, including Plaintiff's assertion that it had no record of ever having sold a car to the persons that had supposedly made the complaints.

Judge Jones said that there had to be a distinction between the pleading requirements of Rule 8 and the summary judgment standard of Rule 56. He stated "[i]t cannot be the rule that the existence of any other plausible explanation that points away from liability bars the claim. Otherwise, there would be few cases that could make it past the pleading stage."

He said that the proper application of Iqbal was that "it is only where there are 'more likely explanations' for the result that the plausibility of the claim is justifiably suspect."

 

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