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Seaquist v. Caldier

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

April 9, 2019

LARRY SEAQUIST and CARLA SEAQUIST, and the marital community comprised thereof, Appellants,
v.
MICHELLE CALDIER, a single person, Respondent.

          Worswick, J.

         In 2014, Larry Seaquist and Michelle Caldier were competing for 26th District State Representative. Larry and Carla Seaquist allege that Caldier defamed Seaquist and placed him in a false light through political campaign materials and in an interview. Caldier moved for summary judgment dismissing the Seaquists' claims. The Seaquists appeal the trial court's order granting Caldier's motion for summary judgment dismissal of both claims.

         Although some of Caldier's statements were unquestionably misleading and ignoble, the Seaquists have not established a prima facie case of defamation or false light by evidence of convincing clarity. Therefore, we affirm.

         FACTS

         I. Factual History

         In 2014, Caldier challenged Seaquist for his 26th District State Representative position. On August 29, 2014, after attending a political candidate endorsement interview at the Kitsap Sun office in Bremerton, both candidates exited the building and went to their respective vehicles. Seaquist's vehicle was parked directly behind Caldier's along the street. While both candidates were sitting in their cars, but before either drove off, Seaquist took two identical photos of the back of Caldier's car. Seaquist later stated that he was impressed with the mechanics of the car's convertible roof and that he took the photograph to assist him in remembering the car's make and model.

         The photos show the back of a white Lexus IS250 C convertible with the top down. The photos are a wide angle shot, with the street on the left, sidewalk and parking lot on the right, and the bottom of the frame shows the dashboard of the vehicle from which the photos were taken. On close inspection, a portion of Caldier's face can be seen through the rearview mirror of the Lexus. Caldier's red sunglasses cover most of the portion of her face that can be seen in the mirror.

         Caldier noticed what Seaquist was doing, exited her car, and asked Seaquist if he had taken photos. Seaquist responded in the affirmative.

         Four days later, on September 2, Caldier posted on Facebook saying, "I came out of a candidate interview and saw Rep. Larry Seaquest [sic], my opponent, taking pictures of me as I got into my car. Wow. . . . I felt like I was being stalked!" Clerk's Papers (CP) at 708. Individuals commented on Caldier's post saying things like, "That's kinda creepy," "Wow, gross," "You might just be his midnight fantasy," and "I am happy to be your bodyguard." CP at 708-09. Caldier "liked" a number of the comments referring to Seaquist as weird, creepy, and gross. CP at 508-12. Eventually Caldier removed the post.

         On September 5, Caldier filed a police report with the Bremerton Police Department. She spoke with Officer Robert Davis Jr. who filled out the demographic and narrative pages of a police report. Caldier said that "on a couple of occasions" Seaquist took her photograph getting out of a car or in public. CP at 84. Officer Davis wrote, "I advised Caldier that from what she has told me Seaquist has not committed any crime." CP at 84. The report also notes that Caldier stated people had taken photos of her home and children and trespassed on her property. Caldier further stated that she did not want Seaquist contacted.

         A week later, on September 12, Steven Gardner of the Kitsap Sun wrote an article discussing Caldier's Facebook post and police report, and garnered comments from both candidates about the incident. The article included Seaquist's photo of Caldier and her car, which Caldier acknowledges she saw when she read the article.

         On October 8, the Caldier campaign released a video ad on YouTube and local television mentioning the incident. A portion of the video included an actor saying, "Seaquist was caught secretly photographing Michelle, invading her privacy." Ex. B. When the actor said this, the screen showed a doctored photograph making Seaquist appear to be hunched over taking a photo with text underneath stating, "Larry Seaquist was caught secretly taking photos of Caldier." CP at 712 (capitalization omitted). The video also showed text saying, "Source: Police report filed September 5, 2014." Ex. 1 at Ex. B (capitalization omitted). Caldier approved the video.

         On October 10, Caldier was interviewed on a radio show. The following exchange occurred:

[Host]: Well, let me ask both of you, then-Melanie and Michelle [Caldier]- you're Republicans, right? And we're told that Republicans have a war on women. Why in the world did you choose the Republican Party? Why don't you each step in and let me know? Michelle, why don't you go first?
[Caldier]: Well, it's funny because I did not even know that there was a war on women. In fact, I have had so much support from the party, and, you know, with some of the experiences I've gone through. I've been actually harassed and had people take pictures of me, had my opponent take pictures of me. I'd have to say that the Democrats probably have more of a war of women, with my experience.

CP at 88-89.

         Sometime near October 16, Caldier sent out a campaign mailer to voters in Kitsap and Pierce counties. One side of the mailer contained the same doctored image of Seaquist as seen in the campaign video. Seaquist was made to appear hunched over, with his coat collar up, sneakily taking a photo with a camera phone while in a grassy area. In print, the mailer read, "WHY WAS LARRY SEAQUIST TAKING PICTURES of Michelle Caldier?"[1] CP at 93. Underneath this, the mailer stated, "CALDIER FILES POLICE REPORT." CP at 93.

         On the other side of the mailer, a number of statements were under the heading, "CALDIER FILES POLICE REPORT AGAINST SEAQUIST." CP at 94. On the left side were two separate statements, "Why Were Seaquist Campaign People Taking Pictures at Caldier Home?" and, directly beneath, "Caldier Files Police Report Against Seaquist." CP at 94. The middle of the mailer had the heading, "Multiple Incidents Lead to Concern by Caldier." CP at 94.

         Under this, there was text on the left and an image of a demographic page of the police report Caldier filed against Seaquist. The text stated:

It started with unwelcome strangers taking pictures of her home. Then the mailbox was tampered with leading to the likelihood of trespassing-a Federal offense. The final straw was an inappropriate intrusion by Larry Seaquist himself, sneakily taking pictures of Michelle while she was getting in to her car.
Enough is enough! Michelle filed a police report seen here to communicate a message to Larry Seaquist and his campaign staff that they had crossed the line. Friendly campaigning had turned into what felt like stalking and harassment to Ms. Caldier, so she took action.

CP at 94.

         Under this block of text, there was a photo. The photo showed the hands of a person taking a photo of Caldier in her car. The photographer was at the passenger side window taking the photo of Caldier's profile. Next to this photo and under the police report image was a photo of Seaquist. Under Seaquist's photo and in large lettering, the mailer stated, "Larry Seaquist Should be Ashamed." Under this, "You would expect a higher level of integrity from a man with Larry Seaquist's experience. Has the Seaquist team resorted to dirty tactics to win? It appears so." CP at 94. Finally, on the right side of the mailer, there was a picture of Caldier with the accompanying text, "'I don't think a female candidate is supposed to feel like I have felt in the privacy of my own home and car. This kind of behavior is concerning and possibly illegal.'-Michelle Caldier." CP at 94.

         A website promoting Caldier's campaign, Larryseaquistfacts.com, posted the same graphics and statements as the mailer, except for Caldier's picture and quote. The website contained additional information recounting and criticizing Seaquist's political stances. Caldier acknowledged that this website promoted her campaign, but she denied running it or directing the content of the site. Caldier's campaign staff, however, acknowledged running the website as part of the Caldier campaign.

         II. Procedural History

         After the Seaquists filed suit alleging defamation and false light. The lawsuit was dismissed, but later reinstated.[2]

         After the superior court vacated its prior dismissal and findings, Caldier moved for summary judgment, which the superior court granted in part and denied in part. In its order, the court examined each statement and denied summary judgment regarding the statements it found to potentially support a defamation by implication claim. Because the court noted a split of authorities as to whether defamation by implication was a viable theory in this State, it certified the question to this court. However, the Seaquists renounced any defamation by implication claim and, as a result, we denied discretionary review.[3]

         The trial court, after requiring the Seaquists to expressly state they waived any defamation by implication claims, granted Caldier's motion for summary ...


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