Twitter Urges Dismissal of Nunes Defamation Case Based on Venue

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Twitter has asked a Virginia judge to throw out a $250 million defamation lawsuit brought by Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of California against the social media giant and several users, arguing the lawmaker filed his complaint in the wrong state.  

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif,. is seen during a hearing on trade policy before the House Ways and Means Committee, March 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Nunes filed the complaint in Henrico County Circuit Court in March against Twitter, the anonymous parody accounts “Devin Nunes’ Mom” and “Devin Nunes’ Cow,” and political consultant Liz Mair.

He claimed the defendants had taken to the internet to decry the politician’s policies and loyalty to President Donald Trump in a defamatory way and that the social media company is “knowingly hosting and monetizing content that is clearly abusive, hateful and defamatory.”

The “Devin Nunes’ Cow” account remains active and gained hundreds of thousands of followers in the wake of the media storm around the filing. The “Devin Nunes’ Mom” account has since been suspended, but an alternative account was created the day after the filing. It has over 60,000 followers and promised to see the congressman in court.

But in a motion to dismiss filed last week by the Richmond, Virginia-based attorney Charles Seyfarth with O’Hagan Meyer, the social media giant asked to have the case thrown out because “the court lacks personal jurisdiction over Twitter” as the company is not “at home” in Virginia. It also argued the suit doesn’t arise out of any action that the company took in the state.

Additionally, Twitter says its terms of service require all suits against the company to be filed in its home state of California.

Mair filed a similar motion to dismiss on Tuesday. In that filing, Amy Neuhardt, an attorney with the New York-based Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, said Nunes’ issues with Mair stem from her work on an opponent’s campaign in California, further stressing the importance of the court dismissing the case for lack of jurisdiction.

“Simply put, Mr. Nunes’s home state of California is a far more convenient and practical forum with a far greater nexus to the present dispute,” Neuhardt wrote in a memo to support the dismissal motion.

In a phone call, a spokesperson for Twitter and Mair’s law firms told Courthouse News they have no additional comment beyond what was said in the filing.

Since the case was originally filed, questions have swirled as to why the California congressman chose Virginia’s Henrico County as the venue for the defamation suit.

While Nunes’ filing said Twitter does have a registered office and a registered agent within the court’s jurisdiction, legal experts have their own theories as to why the case was filed there. 

Attempts to ask Stephen Biss, the Charlottesville lawyer retained by Nunes, why the suit was filed in Virginia were not returned.

But Lee Berlik, a defamation lawyer with Berlik Law located in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Reston, said Virginia has significantly weaker strategic lawsuit against public participation, or anti-SLAPP, laws, which makes it harder, or at least more costly, to fight against defamation claims.

Berlik said California’s anti-SLAPP laws would allow a suit like Nunes’ to be thrown out almost immediately. But under Virginia’s defamation laws, even questionable lawsuits can be dragged out to injure the defendants in one way or another.

“That’s why Nunes doesn’t want to be in California, he wants discovery,” Berlik said in an interview with Courthouse News of the costly legal process of collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses, which usually happens ahead of further legal proceedings.

“He wants to learn as much as he can about these Twitter accounts,” Berlik added. “And he presumably wants media attention and this case could take a long time.”

Paul Alan Levy has been part of the free-speech focused Public Citizen Litigation Group for about 40 years and he too suspected Nunes filed suit in Virginia because of the state’s weaker anti-SLAPP laws.

“We are aware of [lawyers] in the Richmond area who market themselves as someone to hire to file defamation suits because they think it’s a better place to file defamation cases,” he told Courthouse News.

Nunes has yet to respond to the motions to dismiss but court records show he may not have been served with the latest motions yet either. When he is served, he’ll have 21 days to respond.

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