DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — An Iowa federal judge on Tuesday put on hold a defamation suit filed by the family of California Congressman Devin Nunes against Esquire magazine and journalist Ryan Lizza, giving the Republican lawmaker’s family two weeks to file an amended complaint or the case will be dismissed.
U.S. District Judge C.J. Williams, an appointee of President Donald Trump, issued a 20-page ruling that is critical of the original complaint brought by the Nunes family for failure to be specific about precisely how the allegedly defamatory Esquire magazine article was inaccurate.
Nunes, a Republican representing California’s 22nd congressional district, sued Hearst and Lizza last September over a 2018 article Lizza wrote for Esquire magazine about how Nunes’ family moved its dairy farm from California to northwest Iowa. The story – headlined “Devin Nunes’s Family Farm Is Hiding a Politically Explosive Secret” – suggested there was a scandal involved and that Nunes attempted to hide the Iowa move.
Nunes’ father and brother, who operate NuStar Farms in Sibley, Iowa, which they purchased in 2007 after selling the family farm in California, filed a separate suit in January making many of the same allegations. Nunes’s suit asks for $77.5 million in damages and the Nunes family seeks $25 million.
The two cases were combined for an April 24 hearing on the defendants’ motions to dismiss both lawsuits, but Judge Williams’ decision Tuesday applies only the family’s suit. The judge will rule later on Nunes’ complaint.
Williams denied Hearst and Lizza’s motion to dismiss the case outright, instead granting a motion for the plaintiffs to file a more definite statement of their case. He gave them 14 days to file an amended complaint “specifically identifying the facts in the contested article they allege are false, and to allege facts which, if proven, would show those facts to be false.
“If plaintiffs do not file an amended complaint, the court may dismiss this matter without further action by defendants,” the ruling states.
The Nunes family suit cited 16 separate statements from the Esquire story that were allegedly defamatory, but the judge wrote that when “defendants are members of the media, there is no presumption that the libelous statements are false or caused injury. In other words, libel per se is not available against members of the media.”
It is not enough, Williams wrote, to declare statements to be false without alleging facts that would show them to be false.
“The remainder of plaintiffs’ complaint is bereft of any factual allegations pertaining to the truth or falsity of the challenged statements. Rather, the remainder of plaintiffs’ complaint is conclusory in nature,” he wrote.
The bulk of the judge’s ruling is a point-by-point analysis of each of the Nunes family’s claims, concluding that it is not obvious which of the statements in the article are actually false.
“Without knowing which of the facts plaintiffs allege are actually false, defendants are left not knowing how to answer the complaint,” the judge wrote.
“The tedious and laborious exercise of dissecting each of the sixteen bullet points illustrates the deficiency of plaintiffs’ complaint,” the ruling states. “The complaint is not at all clear as to which facts asserted in these bullet points plaintiffs allege are actually false. Knowing which assertions plaintiffs allege are false is necessary for defendants to be able to answer the complaint and assert a defense.”
Messages left with the Nunes plaintiffs’ lawyer Steven S. Biss of Charlottesville, Virginia, and with Hearst attorney Jonathan R. Donnellan were not immediately returned Tuesday.
University of Missouri Law School Dean and law professor Lyrissa Lidsky told Courthouse News on Tuesday that the Iowa court put off a more definitive ruling in the case.
“Basically the plaintiff’s failure to differentiate which portions of the allegedly defamatory statements were false, the complaint was not ‘intelligible’ enough to expect defendants’ to answer,” she said. “The judge put off dealing with the potential motion to dismiss issues until it was clear what portions of defendants’ published statements plaintiffs alleged to be defamatory (and false).”