Lawyers representing parties in a $150 million defamation suit filed on behalf of U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., continue to squabble over whether Central Virginia is an appropriate venue for the suit.
Charlottesville-based attorney Steven Biss filed the lawsuit in Albemarle Circuit Court in April on behalf of Nunes, alleging the McClatchy Co. — which owns several newspapers across the country, but none in Virginia — conspired with Virginia political operative Elizabeth Mair to defame the congressman and interfere with his investigations into Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russian election interference.
The suit cites a May 2018 article from The Fresno Bee — titled “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event” — that details a 2016 lawsuit filed against Alpha Omega Winery, a California organization partially owned by Nunes. In the suit, a former employee alleged she suffered civil rights violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress and sexual harassment while working a charity cruise.
The article does not claim Nunes was on board the cruise and clarifies that it is “unclear” whether he was aware of the lawsuit or the cruise. Alpha Omega Winery later settled the woman’s suit for an undisclosed sum, according to the article.
Despite the fact that Nunes, The Fresno Bee and McClatchy are all based in California, Biss has argued in filings that the company distributes to Virginia physically, digitally and via broadcast.
In September, after being served the lawsuit, McClatchy filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Virginia was an improper venue because its long-arm statute — which allows for a court to obtain personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant on the basis of certain acts — does not apply because McClatchy does not purposefully direct any activities in Virginia.
In a response filed this week, Biss again argues that Virginia is a proper venue, citing the involvement of Mair, who lives in Arlington. Citing various cases, Biss claims that McClatchy has not provided any evidence that it does not operate in Virginia.
“McClatchy offers no proof of any ‘burden’ of any kind that would result from any trial in Virginia because, in truth, there is no burden,” Biss writes.
The motion again alleges that McClatchy is an investor in the Charlottesville-based company Moonlighting and owns property in the city. However, McClatchy has claimed it does not own any property in the city and “wrote off” their investment in Moonlighting in 2017, before the alleged defamation took place.
The motion filed on behalf of Nunes goes on to argue that McClatchy has conspired with Mair to attack the congressman, citing an article from far-right blog Breitbart as evidence.
“McClatchy is a propagandist obsessed with spreading disinformation. McClatchy famously attacks and defames Plaintiff as part of its ordinary course of business,” Biss writes. “McClatchy’s actions in stalking Plaintiff have escalated into a full-blown effort to use defamation as a means of propping up McClatchy’s stock price and saving it from bankruptcy.”
Lawyers on behalf of McClatchy requested a protective order, arguing in part that the plaintiff’s discovery requests are too broad and are an attempt to “circumnavigate” the Henrico County Circuit Court in another defamation case Nunes and Biss filed.
In the Albemarle case, Biss has requested communications related to two Twitter accounts, “DevinCow” and “DevinNunesMom,” both of which are named as defendants in the Henrico defamation case along with Twitter.
A Henrico judge has not yet ruled whether Twitter is obligated to produce the identities of the owners of those accounts, but did rule that venue was proper in regards to Twitter.
“Plaintiff does not explain what these Twitter accounts — which are not mentioned in the complaint — have to do with the case or the jurisdictional issue before the court,” McClatchy’s motion reads.
In April, several legal experts posited that Nunes likely chose Virginia as the venue for this suit because of the state’s comparably weak anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation statute, which is less robust than California’s.
A motions hearing currently is set for 1 p.m. Monday in Albemarle Circuit Court.