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Universal Life Church Monastery Storehouse v. King

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

June 19, 2019

UNIVERSAL LIFE CHURCH MONASTERY STOREHOUSE, Plaintiff,
v.
MAURICE KING; LEWIS KING; GLEN YOSHIOKA; DYLAN WALL; SARA WHITE; and AMERICAN MARRIAGE MINISTRIES, a Washington non-profit corporation, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

          Robert S. Lasnik United States District Judge.

         This order comes before the Court on individual defendants Maurice King, Lewis King, Glen Yoshioka, Dylan Wall, and Sara White's “Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).” Dkt. #7. For the following reasons defendants' motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff's complaint alleges that defendants Maurice King, Lewis King, Glen Yoshioka, Dylan Wall, Sara White, and American Marriage Ministries created and maintained two websites-https://www.amm-vs-ulc.com (“AMM-vs-ULC Website”) and https://www.americanministrieslegal.com (“AMM Legal Website”)-on which they made false and disparaging statements about Universal Life Church Monastery in an effort to mislead the public as to plaintiff's credibility as an ordination service provider. Dkt. #1 at 3 ¶ 18-19. Plaintiff alleges that the AMM-vs-ULC Website purports to offer consumers a “side-by-side comparison” of the two organizations, but falsely attributes financial and legal troubles to ULC Monastery knowing that they in fact concern Universal Life Church California-a similarly named but entirely distinct organization with which ULC Monastery is neither related nor affiliated. Dkt. #1 at 4 ¶ 28. Plaintiff alleges that the AMM Legal Website falsely implies that the state of Tennessee does not recognize marriages performed by Universal Life Church ministers. Dkt. #1 at 5 ¶ 31-32. These claims and comparisons, plaintiff asserts, are “likely to confuse or deceive” consumers, threaten to create the impression that ULC Monastery is “dishonest, fraudulent, or incompetent . . . [and] deprive the ULC Monastery of the benefits of public confidence.” Dkt. #1 at 8 ¶ 59. Accordingly, plaintiff brought claims alleging violations of the Lanham Act and the Washington Consumer Protection Act (CPA). See 15 U.S.C. 1125(a); RCW 19.86. Plaintiff additionally brought a claim for defamation per se. Individual defendants Maurice King, Lewis King, Glen Yoshioka, Dylan Wall, and Sara White filed this motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim against them.

         DISCUSSION

         In order to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) Motion, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, “to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). While “detailed factual allegations” are not required, a “[t]hreadbare recital of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do[es] not suffice.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Rather, to meet the plausibility standard a claim must “plead[] factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. In reviewing a complaint, the Court disregards unsupported legal conclusions, which are not entitled to the assumption of truth, and determines whether the remaining well-pleaded factual allegations, assumed to be true, plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief. Id. When considering a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court's scope of review is generally limited to the contents of the complaint. Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688 (9th Cir. 2001).

         However, Ninth Circuit authority permits the Court to also consider documents referenced extensively in the complaint, documents whose contents are alleged in the complaint and whose authenticity is undisputed by the parties, and matters of judicial notice. Northstar Fin. Advisors Inc. v. Schwab Invs., 779 F.3d 1036, 1042-43 (9th Cir. 2015); United States v. Ritchie, 342 F.3d 903, 908 (9th Cir. 2003). Where the Court elects to treat such documents as part of the complaint, their contents are assumed to be true for the purposes of a motion to dismiss. Ritchie, 342 F.3d at 908. Plaintiff has requested the Court take judicial notice of American Marriage Ministries' most recent annual report in its consideration of the motion to dismiss.[1] Plaintiff has also placed before the Court a document entitled “Deposition upon Oral Examination of Glen Masa-Aki Yoshioka Buchanan” which contains oral statements made by one of the individual defendants in this case on January 24, 2019, in the context of a separate action brought by American Marriage Ministries against Universal Life Church Monastery.[2] Neither document is mentioned in the complaint. For the reasons stated in footnotes 1 and 2, the Court has considered the contents of the document entitled “Express Annual Report with Changes, ” but declines to consider the document entitled “Deposition upon Oral Examination of Glen Masa-Aki Yoshioka Buchanan” in determining whether the complaint, taken as a whole, gives rise to a plausible inference of actionable conduct by individual defendants Maurice King, Lewis King, Glen Yoshioka, Dylan Wall, and Sara White.

         Defendants claim that they are shielded from liability by the corporate form of American Marriage Ministries and that plaintiff's complaint fails to allege adequate facts to support piercing the corporate veil. Plaintiff does not, however, allege in the complaint that the individual defendants should be liable for the actions of American Marriage Ministries merely by nature of their position as governing persons of the organization. Rather, they allege that each defendant is individually liable because they “directly participated in and materially contributed to the creation, operation, communication, and use in commerce” of websites containing allegedly false statements about ULC Monastery. Dkt. #1 at 3 ¶ 19. As a result, none of the claims brought in the complaint require the Court to pierce the corporate veil to hold the individual defendants personally liable for actions they themselves allegedly took. Individuals may be, and frequently are, held personally liable for violations of the Lanham Act. See Committee for Idaho's High Desert, Inc. v. Yost, 92 F.3d 814, 823 (9th Cir. 1996); Coastal Abstract Service, Inc. v. First American Title Ins. Co., 173 F.3d 725 (9th Cir. 1999). Under the CPA, “[i]f a corporate officer participates in the wrongful conduct, or with knowledges approves of the conduct, then the officer, as well as the corporation, is liable for the penalties.” State v. Ralph Williams North West Chrysler Plymouth, Inc., 87 Wn.2d 298, 322 (1976). Finally, the alleged defamation is a tort claim, and “a corporate officer or director is, in general, personally liable for all torts which he authorizes or directs or in which he participates notwithstanding that he acted as an agent of the corporation and not on his own behalf.” Facebook, Inc. v. Power Ventures, Inc., 844 F.3d 1058, 1069 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting Committee for Idaho's High Desert, Inc., 92 F.3d at 823). The complaint alleges direct participation on the part of each individual defendant. Accordingly, the question of whether plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to warrant piercing the corporate veil is irrelevant to the claims brought against the individual defendants.

         A. Violations of the Lanham Act - 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)

         Plaintiff alleges that the individual defendants “engaged in . . . Lanham Act violations knowingly, willfully, and maliciously.” Dkt. #1 at 6 ¶ 43. The Lanham Act reads in pertinent part:

(1) Any person who, on or in connection with any goods or services, or any container for goods, uses in commerce any word, term, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, or any false designation of origin, false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact, which--
(A) is likely to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive as to the affiliation, connection, or association of such person with another person, or as to the origin, sponsorship, or approval of his or her goods, services, or commercial activities by another person, or
(B) in commercial advertising or promotion, misrepresents the nature, characteristics, qualities, or geographic origin of his or her or another person's goods, services, or commercial activities, shall be liable in a civil action by any person who ...

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