Melania Loses Defamation Lawsuit on Jurisdiction Grounds–Trump v. Tarpley

As we know, our president frequently threatens defamation lawsuits, only occasionally delivers on those threats (remember the guarantee to sue the women who accused him of sexual assault?), sometimes brings SLAPPs when he does actually sue for defamation (remember when he sued a book author because “it will cost him a lot of money”?), and is more likely to be a defamation defendant than plaintiff–though he is defamation-resistant because, according to one judge, no one actually believes what he says.

His wife Melania, in contrast, keeps a lower profile, both in the public eye and in court, so it caught my attention when Melania brought a defamation lawsuit. She sued a blogger, Webster Griffin Tarpley, for defamation. He blogged several rumors about Melania but later retracted the post (presumably under legal threats). He got sued anyway. Separately, Mail Media Inc. (MMI), which allegedly runs the MailOnline website, published an article reporting on similar rumors. They too retracted the post and got sued anyway.

MMI moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction in Maryland, which is Tarpley’s home state. MMI is based in the UK and has its US operations in New York–also Melania’s current residence (at a substantial extra cost to taxpayers). So New York seems like the right place for this lawsuit, not Maryland, even though it means bifurcating the case from the Tarpley case.

To support Maryland jurisdiction, Melania alleged:

* MailOnline gets 4,600 views/hour and 72,600 browsers/day from Maryland
* MailOnline has a special US-facing page with extensive local coverage, including coverage of Maryland. The US site geotargets ads from Maryland businesses to Maryland residents

These arguments fail. The court cites the general proposition: “The overwhelming weight of authority holds that merely operating a website — even if it is a popular website that makes money from advertising… — does not constitute ‘purposeful availment.'” The court then applies it to this case: “MMI does not intentionally enter the Maryland market specifically, but rather the United States market as a whole….there was no evidence that the website specifically targeted residents of the forum state more than, or in a different way than, any other state.”

The geotargeted ads don’t matter because Melania “failed to establish that MMI has targeted Maryland specifically with its advertisements.” MMI didn’t sell any ads directly to Maryland residents, and the geotargeted ads apparently were sold and served by a third party ad network.

The news stories about Maryland don’t matter because 2/3 were AP wire stories that were automatically reposted on MailOnline; and the site otherwise has a national/international focus and not a “specific focus” on Maryland (distinguishing Mavrix and Hare v. Ritchie).

In the case of the MailOnline article in question, it was initially uploaded in London and then uploaded to the US site by New York staff. No reporters traveled to Maryland, and MMI doesn’t have an office in Maryland, Melania doesn’t live in Maryland, and no witnesses are located in Maryland. As a result, the case can proceed in Maryland against Tarpley, but MMI is dismissed.

Melania can refile in New York if she wants (and there shouldn’t be any statute of limitations issues), and she has already done so.

UPDATE: The new complaint suggests that the Mail Online limited Melania’s kleptocracy opportunities, which is an odd–but perhaps refreshingly honest–argument to make.

UPDATE 2: Here is the refiled complaint in New York. Trump v. Mail Media, Inc., Index No. 650661/2017 (N.Y. Supreme Ct. complaint filed Feb. 6, 2017). Despite the express words of the complaint, Melania publicly disclaimed any intent to commit kleptocracy.

Case citation: Trump v. Tarpley, Case No. 424492V (Md. Cir. Ct. Feb. 1, 2017). The complaint.

See also: Was Melania Trump’s Plagiarism Also Copyright Infringement? (Guest Blog Post)