District court dismisses lawsuit filed by former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, finding claims based on allegedly defamatory HuffPost and Rolling Stone articles to be duplicative of those in prior lawsuit and barred by res judicata.
Joseph Michael Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who was famously pardoned by President Donald Trump in 2017, sued the publishers of HuffPost and Rolling Stone, and reporters Kevin Robillard and Tessa Stuart, for defamation arising out of online news articles covering Arpaio’s 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate. Arpaio previously filed similar claims based on the same articles in a different lawsuit against the same defendants in 2018, which the district court dismissed for Arpaio’s failure to allege facts of actual malice. In this second case, filed in 2019, he added claims for tortious interference with prospective business relations and false light against the media defendants. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding all the claims, including the newly asserted ones, were barred by res judicata, also known as the judicial doctrine of claim preclusion.
Arpaio served as the Maricopa County Sheriff from 1993 to 2017, during which time his office came under national scrutiny for its policing tactics and racial profiling. In 2013, following a trial in the class action litigation Melendres v. Arpaio, District Judge G. Murray Snow enjoined Arpaio and his office from “detaining any person based solely on knowledge or reasonable belief . . . that the person is unlawfully present within the United States[.]” Subsequently, after finding that Arpaio had knowingly continued to engage in conduct that violated the injunction, Judge Snow referred Arpaio for an investigation of criminal contempt. Arpaio was found guilty of federal criminal contempt in July 2017, but President Trump pardoned him less than one month later, before Arpaio’s sentencing.
HuffPost published an online article written by Robillard about the race for the Arizona U.S. Senate seat on Nov. 5, 2018. The article mentioned Arpaio, who lost in the Arizona Republican primary, erroneously stating that he was sentenced to prison for his contempt of court conviction. Within two days, the publisher explicitly corrected the mistake in the article. Rolling Stone published an online article written by Stuart about the election on Nov. 13, 2018, which referred to Arpaio as an “ex-felon.” Within hours, the publisher revised the article and changed “ex-felon” to “presidential pardonee,” explaining that Arpaio was convicted of a misdemeanor and apologizing for the error.
In Arpaio’s 2018 lawsuit against the HuffPost and Rolling Stone defendants arising from these allegedly defamatory statements, the court found that the statements were not substantially true, but nonetheless dismissed the claims with prejudice, on the ground that Arpaio had failed to allege any facts of actual malice, a required element of a defamation claim brought by a public figure. While Arpaio alleged that defendants were motivated by “leftist enmity” when they made their respective erroneous statements, the court found that “differences in political opinions” were insufficient to satisfy the pleading standard for actual malice as a matter of law.
Rather than appeal or otherwise challenge the court’s decision in Arpaio I, Arpaio filed a new case in late 2019 targeting the same defendants and relying on the same allegedly defamatory articles. The Arpaio II complaint added two new causes of action for general defamation and defamation by implication, and added a new subsection dedicated to alleging facts of actual malice, but otherwise was largely the same as the complaint in Arpaio I. The Arpaio II court refused to even consider whether Arpaio’s new complaint satisfied the pleading standard for actual malice, however, finding that Arpaio’s claims had already been litigated and were barred by res judicata.
The court ultimately concluded that the claims and issues in Arpaio II were, for legal purposes, the same as the claims and issues in Arpaio I. Even though Arpaio added two new causes of action, the court saw no meaningful distinction between these causes of action and the ones previously claimed in Arpaio I, as all were based on the same nucleus of facts. The court rejected Arpaio’s argument that he should have been permitted to file an amended complaint in Arpaio I—specifically, Arpaio’s counsel failed to move to amend the complaint. Moreover, even if the court in Arpaio I had erred in dismissing the case with prejudice, Arpaio’s options for challenging that ruling were either to file a timely appeal or to file a motion for reconsideration, not to file a new action that was procedurally barred. The court noted that it generally had limited resources, which “would be overwhelmed if disappointed plaintiffs could repackage and refile their cases as soon as they are dismissed.”
Nevertheless, the court denied the HuffPost defendants’ motion for sanctions against Arpaio for filing and pursuing the second case. Although the court agreed that the Arpaio II case was frivolous, it was not convinced that Arpaio filed it for an improper purpose or that the decision to file was as egregious as plaintiffs’ actions in other cases where sanctions were imposed.
Summary prepared by Linna Chen and Jordan Meddy