Lokhova v. Halper, No. 20-1368 (4th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Appellant filed suit against Appellee Harper and various news organizations, alleging defamation, civil conspiracy, and tortious interference with contract. Appellant, a Russian born academic, alleges that appellees defamed her by falsely stating that she was a Russian spy involved in the alleged collusion between Russia and the campaign of former President Donald Trump. On appeal, appellant challenges the district court's dismissal of her tort claims and Appellee Halper challenges the denial of his motion for sanctions.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the majority of appellant's defamation claims as time-barred, dismissal of the remaining defamation claims as a matter of law, and dismissal of the vicarious liability claim against NBCUniversal. In regard to statements published prior to May 23, 2018, the court rejected appellant's argument that each time an allegedly defamatory publication was hyperlinked or tweeted, the statute of limitations began anew. The court concluded that the public policy supporting the single publication rule and the traditional principles of republication dictate that a mere hyperlink, without more, cannot constitute republication. The court rejected appellant's contention that third party tweets constitute republication pursuant to Weaver v. Beneficial Finance Co., 98 S.E.2d 687 (Va. 1957), a Virginia Supreme Court decision from 1957. In regard to statements published after May 23, 2018, the court concluded that although these statements are not time-barred, neither can they survive a motion to dismiss. In this case, the Washington Post Article did not defame appellant, and NBCUniversal is not liable for the tweets authored by Malcolm Nance through a respondeat superior theory of liability. Because appellant's defamation claims fail, so too does her civil conspiracy claim. The court also concluded that appellant's claim of tortious interference with contract failed where the allegations of Appellee Halper's knowledge of appellant's business expectancies are wholly conclusory. Finally, the court concluded that the district court acted within its discretion by electing not to award sanctions to appellant's counsel at this point and in denying the motion to sanction without prejudice.