Federal Judge dismisses Lawsuit against "Black Lives Matter": Social Movements Can’t Be Sued
"Plaintiff … produced a Proposed Amended Complaint that not only fails to state a plausible claim for relief against any of the named Defendants, but that also attempts to hold a hashtag [#BlackLivesMatter] liable for damages in tort. The Court therefore finds that granting leave to Plaintiff to attempt to file a Second Proposed Amended Complaint would be futile. The Court also notes that Plaintiff’s attempt to bring suit against a social movement and a hashtag evinces either a gross lack of understanding of the concept of capacity or bad faith, which would be an independent ground to deny Plaintiff leave to file a Second Proposed Amended Complaint...."
—Judge Brian A. Jackson, U.S. District Court, Middle District of Louisiana, September 28, 2017.
By Catherine Park
On July 9, 2016, during protests in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, following the police-involved killing of Alton Sterling, who was subdued and under police control (face down on the ground) when he was shot by police, the Plaintiff ("John Doe Police Officer") was injured by a shooter during the protests. The complaint does not identify the shooter (maybe he was never caught), but the injured police officer blamed Black Lives Matter.
Officer John Doe's Proposed Amended Complaint for Damages failed to pinpoint how the named Defendants ("Black Lives Matter" and several leaders/members who appeared in media interviews) were responsible for his injuries. Federal District Judge Brian A. Jackson dismissed Doe's cause of action. His complaint failed to mention a gun or bullets traced to the named Defendants.
The actions of the Defendants, as described in the complaint, were peaceful and Constitutionally-protected—appearing on news broadcasts to denounce police brutality, organizing protests, and live-streaming their arrests. The Plaintiff's complaint sought to impose liability under theories of agency and "respondeat superior," which have been used to hold corporations liable for torts committed by employees, but the Court rejected those theories:
"Because 'Black Lives Matter,' as that term is used in the Complaint, is a social movement rather than an organization or entity of any sort, its advent on social media merely was a 'fortuitous creation of a community of interest'; 'Black Lives Matter' was not created through a 'contract of association' and is not an 'entity whose personality 'is distinct from that of its members,'" and therefore it is not a 'juridical person' that is capable of being sued. Ermert v. Hartford Ins., 559 So. 2d 467, 474 (La. 1990) (quoting La. Civ. Code art. 24)."
Instead of blaming the shooter or trying to identify the shooter, the Plaintiff sought to blame a social movement. It's strange reasoning and perhaps why the Court was so concerned that the complaint could have been filed in bad faith. The complaint, as drafted, attempted to extract compensation from the activists, which could have had a chilling effect on their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, expression, association—which are protected activities. The Judge's Order emphasized:
"Civil liability may not be imposed merely because an individual belonged to a group, some members of which committed acts of violence." NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 920 (1982).
Indeed, attributing blame to a group for the actions of individual members is fallacious reasoning, especially where, as in Doe's complaint, the shooter wasn't identified. Even assuming arguendo that the shooter had a connection to the social movement, the Constitution requires more than mere association before liability can be imposed on members who were not the shooter:
"For liability to be imposed by reason of association alone, it is necessary to establish that the group itself possessed unlawful goals and that the individual held a specific intent to further those illegal aims." Claiborne, supra, at 920.
The Court emphasized that, for liability to be imposed, the named Defendants had to have "authorized, directed, or ratified specific tortious activity." The Plaintiff cited no proof that the named Defendants directed the shooter; indeed, they were live-streaming their own arrests at the time. The complaint was incomprehensibly drafted and dismissal was appropriate.