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Smith v. Sandusky Newspapers, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Western Division

June 20, 2018

Matthew Smith, Plaintiff
v.
Sandusky Newspapers, Inc., et al., Defendants

          ORDER

          James G. Carr Sr. U.S. District Judge.

         This libel case arises out of a newspaper article about plaintiff Matthew Smith's arrest.

         In June, 2016, police in Sandusky, Ohio arrested Smith on a charge of felony theft.

         The local newspaper, the Sandusky Register, recounted the arrest in article titled “Man steals $22k from rental business.” The article reported that Smith allegedly stole checks from his employer, directed someone else to cash them, and obtained the cash. It also included the arresting officer's statement that Smith “basically duped [someone] into cashing checks - he took advantage of him.” (Doc. 19 at ¶43).

         Prosecutors soon dismissed the charge, and the Register eventually modified the online version of the article to read “Shiloh man charged for $22k theft.” In September, 2017 - after Smith filed this lawsuit - the newspaper published an article about the dismissal of charges.

         Smith now alleges that the original and modified articles libeled him, the former because it definitively stated he committed a theft and the latter because it did not explain that prosecutors dismissed the charge. He also brings claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and injunctive relief.[1]

         Jurisdiction is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).[2]

         Pending is the defendants' motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). (Doc. 24). For the following reasons, I grant the motion.

         Background

         I recounted the facts underlying Smith's arrest in my prior order. See Smith, supra, 2018 WL 1315155 at *1-2. In brief, Smith's employer discovered that someone had improperly cashed seven company checks worth $22, 000. Two witnesses - Young and Shipman - pinned the crime on Smith; Sandusky police accepted their claim and arrested Smith. In fact, substantial evidence - ignored without explanation by the arresting officer - suggested Young and Shipman were the likely culprits.

         On June 16, 2016, the Register published the “Man steals $22k from rental business” article in the print version of its newspaper and on its website. (Doc. 24-2 at 1). Defendant Courtney Astolfi wrote the article, and defendant Matthew Westerhold edited it. (Doc. 19 at ¶¶40-41).

         The article stated that:

An employee of a Sandusky rental company was arrested Tuesday for allegedly stealing $22, 000 from the business.
Matthew Smith, 44, of Shiloh, was charged with one fourth-degree felony count of theft.
Smith allegedly orchestrated the theft of $22, 000 from Davis & Pinchot Investments over the course of five months this year.
He was employed as a maintenance worker at the company, which owns several rental properties in the city of Sandusky, said Sandusky police Detective John Powell.
Smith allegedly entered a company safe and stole seven checks between January and May, all of which had already been signed by the owner in order to pay bills, according to police.
Each check, worth between $2, 000 and $4, 000, was subsequently cashed.
Police said Smith used two men in order to execute the plot.
“He basically duped a tenant into cashing the checks; he took advantage of him, ” Powell said. “And that (tenant} was driven to the bank by another subject, who the suspect later tried to pin it on.” Through their investigation, detectives were able trace [sic] the thefts back to Smith, despite him allegedly using the others to cash the checks.
A warrant was issued, and Smith was arrested on it Tuesday afternoon.
When officers questioned him at the Sandusky police station, Smith did not admit to the thefts.
He was taken to the Erie County jail, but posted bond and has since been released.

(Doc. 24-2 at 1) (brackets in original).

         Two months after Smith's arrest, prosecutors dismissed the theft charge due to lack of evidence. (Doc. 19 at ¶46).

         A DPI manager, Jared Davis, called Astolfi and asked her to redact the article about Smith because “it was untrue and harming [Smith's] and DPI's reputation in the local community.” (Id. at ¶47). Astolfi allegedly responded that “she was aware of the dismissal and would update the story to reflect that the charges had been dismissed.” Instead of doing so, Astolfi caused the newspaper to publish “an ...


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