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Goodman v. Does

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division

March 28, 2014

TODD D. GOODMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN and JANE DOES 1-10, and LINDA LAGOY, Defendants.

ORDER

JAMES C. FOX, Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the court on a number of motions. The complaint [DE-1] alleges various defamation and unfair competition claims related to postings on www.localdirtbags.com and names the Defendants as "John and Jane Does." After filing the complaint, Plaintiff Todd Goodman ("Goodman") sent the summons and complaint to Aplus.net, the business name listed on www.localdirtbags.com ( hereinafter "localdirtbags"). However, it turned out that Aplus.net was not responsible for the content on the website. Instead, Aplus.net apparently licensed its name and business address for use on the localdirtbags website, presumably because the actual website author wanted to conceal her identity. When Aplus.net received a copy of the summons and complaint, it forwarded the documents to Linda Lagoy, who has entered an appearance pro se in the instant action and admits that she is the website author. See Answer [DE-12] ΒΆΒΆ 20, 21, 29.

When Lagoy made her appearance, motions practice began in earnest. Lagoy immediately filed a "motion to dismiss and in the alternative motion for extension of time to file answer" [DE-7], alleging that Goodman failed to properly effect service under Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Goodman, in turn, observed that Lagoy's response was not timely and promptly filed a motion for entry of default [DE-8]. Subsequently (and before the court had ruled on either motion), Lagoy filed a "Motion to Dismiss, Answer, and Defenses" [DE-12]. This "motion" provides multiple arguments for dismissal, including an argument that Goodman's false advertising claim under the Lanham Act fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The motion also provides a full answer to Goodman's complaint, including numbered responses corresponding to all 172 paragraphs of Goodman's 84-page complaint. All of these motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the second motion to dismiss [DE-12] is ALLOWED as to the Lanham Act claims and that claim is DISMISSED with prejudice. The court declines to extend supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining claims and those claims are also DISMISSED. The remaining motions are DENIED.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Goodman has been the target of an extraordinarily aggressive smear campaign on the localdirtbags website. Goodman, a licensed auto mechanic, owns and operates Affordable Transmissions, a general automotive and transmission repair shop in Raleigh, North Carolina. He also owns a number of similar automotive repair businesses in eastern North Carolina. The localdirtbags website is apparently devoted to ruining Goodman's personal and business reputation. The articles and associated comments allege that Goodman cheats customers by, among other things, rebuilding transmissions that do not need repair, refusing to fix substandard work without additional payment, and generally overcharging customers. In addition, the website posts various articles regarding Goodman's alleged criminal record and alleges that Goodman remains an incalcitrant criminal and extortonist.

The website is organized as a "blog" that contains various articles regarding Goodman and his associates and allows users to post comments below the articles. The articles themselves contain most of the factual content regarding Goodman's alleged deceptive business practices and alleged criminal activities. Goodman does not quote from the articles in the complaint, but he has attached the articles to the complaint and incorporated them by reference. The "Mike and Tiffany" article [DE-1-14, Ex. 13a] is representative. Goodman allegedly quoted a price of $800 to $1500 to "Mike and Tiffany" to rebuild the transmission in one of their vehicles. After saving up for a year, the couple returned to Affordable Transmission and Goodman's employees rebuilt the transmission. When Tiffany returned to retrieve the vehicle and pay for the work, Goodman allegedly charged her $2, 300. Because the couple had anticipated a maximum price of $1, 500 (which they had spent a year saving), Tiffany was forced to arrange a payment plan. Goodman allegedly required Tiffany to write out a check for $800, which he agreed not to cash if the couple made the monthly payments.

Tiffany noticed that the transmission was slipping after leaving the store. She returned to Affordable the next morning and an employee took the car for a test drive. The employee opined that nothing was wrong with the transmission and Tiffany left again. Shortly after leaving, the transmission fluid began leaking and Tiffany drove the car to a new mechanic, who informed her a seal was broken on the transmission. When Tiffany asked Goodman to make the necessary repairs, he asked for additional money. Tiffany and Mike apparently decided to take their business elsewhere at that point. However, the parade of horribles did not end. When the couple missed a payment on their $800 debt, Goodman allegedly cashed the (worthless) $800 check and "had the nerve to prosecute them for a bad check." [DE-1-14, Ex. 13a].

The remaining articles on the website either allege similar experiences with Goodman's businesses or denigrate his character directly. Their substance can be inferred from the titles: "Another Victim of Todd Goodman" [DE-1-7, -8, Ex. 7a, Ex. 7b]; "Your Neighbor the Felon" [DE-1-3, Ex. 3]; "Goodman's Conviction for Extortion" [DE-1-10, Ex. 9]; "Victim of Todd Goodman" [DE-1-12, Ex. 11]. Each of these articles (and others) are attached to Goodman's complaint and incorporated by reference.

Goodman's complaint also contains numerous quotations from the "comments" sections underneath the articles. Because the substantive content of these postings is significant to the analysis below, the court will recite some representative samples of the comments on the website. In doing so, the court emphasizes that none of these statements (or the articles), to the extent they allege facts at all, are supported by any evidence at this stage of the proceedings. As quoted in Goodman's complaint, the localdirtbags website contains the following allegations:

Hey, Toddy [Goodman]! Why don't you give up on the lying... all the years you have been doing it should have made you better at it, instead it has just made YOU a complete idiot!... You are such scum! I hope you get everything you deserve.
....
LET'S CALL IT WHAT IT IS! THE GUY IS SCUM! LOWER THAN SNAIL POOP! NOT SURE WHY YOU PEOPLE ARE BEATING AROUDN (sic) THE BUSH ABOUT IT. HE'S A LOWLIFE, CRIMINAL PUKE!!!!!!! aNYONE THAT PICKS ON WOMEN AND MARINES DURING WAR TIME. YOU CAN'T GET LOWER THAN THAT!!!! i'VE GOT PLENTY OF ROPE, LET'S HANG HIM AND BE DONE WITH THIS BS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
....
YEAH IT TAKES A REAL TOUGH GUY TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF WOMEN, SENIOR CITIZENS AND MARINES ON DEPLOYMENT. NOTE TO TODD GOODMAN: MARINES, WOMEN AND SENIORS HAVE RELATIVES THAT ...

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