Abuse of process claim in District of Columbia ends with summary judgment for defense

In Houlahan v. World wide Associationof Specialty Programs and Schools, 677 F.Supp. 2d 195 (D.D.C. Jan. 5, 2010), the Court awarded summary judgment to the defendants on the plaintiff's claim of abuse of process. The abuse of process claim was grounded on a defamation lawsuit that the defendants had filed against the plaintiff in Utah, allegedly to deter the plaintiff, a journalist, from further investigation of the defendants and from publishing his work.

The Court determined that there was no substantive difference between D.C. law and Utah law concerning abuse of process claims, and therefore applied D.C. law. However, the opinion contains a useful summary of the D.C. choice of law analysis in tort cases.

A federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction applies the choice of law rules of the forum state, Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Travelers Indem. Co., 78 F.3d 639, 642 (D.C.Cir.1996) (citing Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496, 61 S.Ct. 1020, 85 L.Ed. 1477 (1941)), here the District of Columbia. Under District of Columbia law, the first step in the choice of law analysis requires the court to determine whether there is any conflict among the potentially applicable legal standards. Young Women's Christian Ass'n of the Nat'l Capital Area v. Allstate Ins. Co. of Canada, 275 F.3d 1145, 1150 (D.C.Cir.2002) (citing Eli Lilly & Co. v. Home Ins. Co., 764 F.2d 876, 882 (D.C.Cir. 1985)). "Only if such a conflict exists must the court then determine, pursuant to District of Columbia choice of law rules, which jurisdiction has the `more substantial interest' in the resolution of the issues." Id. In tort cases, the substantial interest inquiry requires consideration of (1) "the place where the injury occurred," (2) "the place where the conduct causing the injury occurred," (3) "the domicile, residence, nationality, place of incorporation and place of business of the parties," and (4) "the place where the relationship" was centered. Herbert v. Dist. of Columbia, 808 A.2d 776, 779 (D.C.2002) (quoting RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF CONFLICT OF LAWS (1971), ? 145(2)).

Continuing on, the Court defined abuse of process under D.C. law:

Under District of Columbia law, abuse of process occurs when "process has been used to accomplish some end which is without the regular purview of the process, or which compels the party against whom it is used to do some collateral thing which he could not legally and regularly be required to do." Morowitz v. Marvel, 423 A.2d 196, 198 (D.C.1980) (quoting Jacobson v. Thrifty Paper Boxes, Inc., 230 A.2d 710, 711 (D.C.1967)). There are two essential elements to an abuse of process claim: "(1) the existence of an ulterior motive; and (2) an act in the use of process other than such as would be proper in the regular prosecution of the charge." Hall v. Hollywood Credit Clothing Co., 147 A.2d 866, 868 (D.C.1959) (emphasis in original).

In a footnote, the Court observed that the standards for abuse of process actions in D.C. were established by Brown v. Hamilton, 601 A.2d 1074, 1080 n. 14 (1992).

The Court agreed with the defendants' arguments, reasoning that there is no action for abuse of process when the process is used for the purpose for which it is intended, even though there is an incidental motive of spite or an ulterior purpose of benefit to the defendant.

By design, however, defamation claims, one of the claims in the Utah suit, are meant to silence individuals from making defamatory or otherwise harmful statements. Therefore, the Utah suit was used "for the purpose for which it is intended." See Rusakiewicz v. Lowe, 556 F.3d 1095, 1104 (10th Cir.2009)

The Court also noted that the plaintiff had failed ot make a colorable shoing that defendants committed a willful act in the use of the process other than such as would be proper in the regular prosecution of the charge.

John Treman May, Esq., of Jordan Coyne & Savits LLP, represents one of the defendants in this matter.