Tobinick v. Novella, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 2637 (11th Cir. Feb. 15, 2017):
Appellants Edward Lewis Tobinick, MD ("INR CA"), INR PLLC ("INR FL"), and M.D. Edward Tobinick ("Dr. Tobinick") (collectively, the "Tobinick Appellants") appeal the district court's orders striking INR CA's state law claims pursuant to California's anti-SLAPP statute, twice denying amendment of the Tobinick Appellants' complaint, denying relief pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 37, 56(d), and 60 due to potential discovery-related abuses, and granting summary judgment against the Tobinick Appellants on their Lanham Act claim. We affirm the district [*3] court in all respects.
This case concerns a dispute between two doctors regarding the medical viability of a novel use for a particular drug.
I. The Parties
Dr. Tobinick is certified in internal medicine and dermatology, and he is licensed in both California and Florida. He has two clinics that conduct business as The Institute of Neurological Recovery: INR CA in Los Angeles, California, and INR FL in Palm Beach County, Florida. Dr. Tobinick has developed an unorthodox use for the drug etanercept by delivering it through perispinal administration, which involves a needle injection near particular spinal ligaments. Dr. Tobinick claims that this new use of etanercept is effective at treating spinal pain, post-stroke neurological dysfunctions, and Alzheimer's disease. Etanercept is the generic name of Enbrel, which was first approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration ("FDA") in November 1998 to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Notably, Enbrel has not been FDA approved for the purposes which Dr. Tobinick seeks to use the drug.
Steven Novella ("Dr. Novella") is a neurologist at Yale New Haven Hospital in the Botulinum Program and treats patients with a variety of conditions, [*4] including headaches, back pain, Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and seizures. Dr. Novella also engages in endeavors apart from these professional obligations. For instance, he is on the board of the non-profit Society for Science-Based Medicine, Inc. ("Society"). In addition, in May 2005, Dr. Novella began working with his brother, Jay Novella ("Jay"), to produce and broadcast a podcast that discusses a variety of scientific issues. This podcast, "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe," is hosted on a website (www.theskepticsguide.org) owned by the for-profit company SGU Productions, LLC ("SGU"). Also, Dr. Novella is the executive editor of and contributor for the Science-Based Medicine ("SBM") blog (www.sciencebasedmedicine.org), which examines issues related to science and medicine, and is operated by a non-profit entity, the New England Skeptical Society.1
1 The Society is a separate entity from the SBM blog. The Society has its own website that was first made available to the public on January 1, 2014.
II. Factual Background
In response to a May 5, 2013, Los Angeles Time article discussing Dr. Tobinick's novel treatments, Dr. Novella published an article "Enbrel for Stroke and Alzheimer's" in SBM's blog on May 8, 2013 (the "first article"). In this six-page article, Dr. Novella explains that he learned of the Los Angeles Time article, [*5] the typical characteristics of "quack clinics" or "dubious health clinics," the key features of Dr. Tobinick's clinic, and lastly the plausibility of and the evidence supporting Dr. Tobinick's allegedly effective use of etanercept. Particularly relevant to this case, Dr. Novella also quotes a portion of the Los Angeles Time article, which reported that "[Dr. Tobinick's] claims about the back treatment led to an investigation by the California Medical Board, which placed him on probation for unprofessional conduct and made him take classes in prescribing practices and ethics." Am. Compl. Ex. 1 at 3, Edward Lewis Tobinick, MD v. Novella, No. 9:14-cv-80781-RLR (S.D. Fla. Aug. 1, 2014), ECF No. 55 ("Am. Compl.").
On June 9, 2014, the Tobinick Appellants filed a complaint against Appellees Dr. Novella, the Society, SGU (collectively, the "Novella Appellees"), and also Yale University ("Yale"), challenging Dr. Novella's first article. In response to the lawsuit and on July 23, 2014, Dr. Novella published another article in SBM's blog entitled "Another Lawsuit To Suppress Legitimate Criticism -- This Time SBM" (the "second article"). In the second article, Dr. Novella details the lawsuit filed [*6] by the Tobinick Appellants and provides Dr. Novella's view that the lawsuit is designed to silence his public criticism of Dr. Tobinick's practices. He also restates in large part his same criticisms of Dr. Tobinick's practices as set forth in the first article. In doing so, Dr. Novella again mentions the Medical Board of California ("MBC")'s investigation into Dr. Tobinick's practices, explains that the MBC "filed an accusation in 2004, amended in 2005 and 2006," and lists in detail the different allegations made in the 2004 Accusation against Dr. Tobinick. Am. Compl. Ex. 5 at 3-4.2
2 The Society's website also contains a short entry about Dr. Tobinick's use of etanercept. The entry discusses the MBC's 2006 Second Amended Accusation and subsequent settlement and Dr. Novella's criticism of Dr. Tobinick. The entry also links to Dr. Novella's entire article on the SBM blog.
III. Course of Proceedings
As stated above, the Tobinick Appellants filed their initial complaint on June 9, 2014. On June 11, 2014, the Tobinick Appellants moved for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the Novella Appellees from continuing to display the articles. On August 1, 2014, the Tobinick Appellants filed an amended complaint to add allegations relating to the second article that was published just nine days prior. This operative amended complaint contests several aspects of the first article, including claims that these neurological conditions "not known to be immune mediated [can be] treated by a [*7] specific immunosuppressant,"3 claims that Dr. Tobinick's retrospective case studies are not probative medical evidence, implications that Dr. Tobinick is committing a health fraud, statements that Dr. Tobinick's clinics are "a one-man institute," and that Florida is a "very quack-friendly state." Am. Compl. ¶¶ 54, 60, 63, 69, 71. Regarding the second article, the Tobinick Appellants' operative complaint specifically takes issue with only one new statement therein, that "there have been no double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trials of the treatment provided by [Dr. Tobinick]." Am. Compl. ¶ 102. These disputes are covered in the operative complaint by the following causes of action: violation of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a) (Count I); common law unfair competition (Count II); trade libel (Count III); libel per se (Count IV); and tortious interference with business relationships (Count V).
3 According to Dr. Novella, his statement that the neurological conditions treated by Dr. Tobinick are "not known to be immune mediated" means "that the current consensus is not that these conditions are primarily caused by or driven by an autoimmune disease that could be modified by this treatment." Dep. of Steven Novella, M.D., at 35-36, Edward Lewis Tobinick, MD v. Novella, No. 9:14-cv-80781-RLR (S.D. Fla. Sept. 1, 2015), ECF No. 261-9. Dr. Novella identified etanercept as an example of an immunosuppressant. Id.
On August 8, 2014, and August 13, 2014, SGU and Yale, respectively, moved to dismiss the action as to them for lack of personal jurisdiction. On August 11, 2014, Dr. Novella moved to dismiss all claims against him for various reasons. On August 18, 2014, the Society moved [*8] to dismiss the action against it for failure to state a claim, or for summary judgment, because, inter alia, the Society did not engage in false advertising under the Lanham Act.
On September 25, 2014, pursuant to SGU's and Yale's motions to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, the district court dismissed each from the case. On September 30, 2014, Dr. Novella invoked California's anti-SLAPP law4 and moved to strike the only California plaintiff's, INR CA's, state law claims. On January 23, 2015, the district court denied Dr. Novella's motion to dismiss in nearly all respects but granted his motion to dismiss Count V of the amended complaint, i.e., the tortious interference claim, because Florida's single publication rule barred that claim. The Tobinick Appellants do not challenge this dismissal on appeal.
4 The purpose of the anti-SLAPP law is to curb the "increase in lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances." See Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 425.16(a). Such causes of action are subject to a special motion to strike. Id. § 425.16(b)(1).
On March 16, 2015, after converting the Society's motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Society with respect to the Lanham Act (Count I) and the unfair competition (Count II) claims, explaining that the articles were not commercial speech. The district court also dismissed without prejudice the trade [*9] libel (Count III) and libel per se (Count IV) claims against the Society because the Tobinick Appellants failed to properly notice the Society of these claims as required by Florida law. The district court, therefore, dismissed the Society from the action, but it did provide the Tobinick Appellants leave to re-file their claims against the Society in a separate suit.5 On April 2, 2015, following limited discovery, the district court denied the Tobinick Appellants' motion for a preliminary injunction.
5 On appeal, the Tobinick Appellants do not explicitly challenge the order granting summary judgment in favor of the Society. Their discovery-related requests for relief could be generously construed as a challenge to the validity of this summary judgment order. But, because we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the requests for discovery- related relief, we see no remaining challenge to the grant of summary judgment in favor of the Society.
On May 11, 2015, the deadline for amended pleadings, the Tobinick Appellants moved for leave to file a second amended complaint, adding new factual allegations some of which related to new webpages and a podcast that discussed Dr. Tobinick,6 raising a new claim for common law civil conspiracy, re- asserting claims against the previously-dismissed defendant SGU, and inserting two new defendants--Jay and Paul Ingraham ("Ingraham"), a co-blogger of Dr. Novella. On May 15, 2015, the Tobinick Appellants filed a corrected version of their motion for leave to amend.
6 More precisely, the Tobinick Appellants add allegations regarding (1) a July 23, 2014, legal defense webpage on SGU's website, which requests donations to help defend against the Tobinick Appellants' suit, (2) a July 26, 2014, SGU podcast that discusses Dr. Tobinick's medical treatments, the transcript of which was published on August 7, 2014, and (3) an April 1, 2015, article in SBM's blog that provided an update on the status of the litigation against the Tobinick Appellants.
On June 4, 2015, the district court granted Dr. Novella's special motion to strike INR CA's state law claims ("anti-SLAPP order"). On [*10] June 18, 2015, the district court issued an omnibus order denying the Tobinick Appellants' corrected motion for leave to file a second amended complaint. In that omnibus order, the district court also granted Dr. Tobinick's and INR FL's request for voluntary dismissal of Counts III and IV for trade libel and libel per se, respectively. Shortly thereafter, on June 25, 2015, Dr. Novella filed his answer to the operative amended complaint.
On August 18, 2015, the Tobinick Appellants again moved for leave to file another second amended complaint in order to add a claim under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act ("FDUTPA"). On August 20, 2015, the district court denied the Tobinick Appellants' motion.
On August 25, 2015, Dr. Novella moved for summary judgment on all remaining claims. On September 1, 2015, the Tobinick Appellants filed two motions based on the allegation that Dr. Novella provided false deposition testimony, one motion pursuant to Rule 37 seeking sanctions and one pursuant to Rule 60(b) seeking reconsideration of the district court's anti-SLAPP order. The Tobinick Appellants argued that Dr. Novella falsely denied that he had communicated with the author of the May 5, 2013, [*11] Los Angeles Times article; denied that he had ever discussed Dr. Tobinick with Ingraham; and denied communicating with another physician, Stephen Barrett, regarding Dr. Tobinick.
On September 15, 2015, the district court denied each of the Tobinick Appellants' motions based on the alleged discovery-related abuses. On October 2, 2015, the district court found that Dr. Novella's speech is not commercial and then granted summary judgment in favor of Dr. Novella on both remaining claims. The district court reasoned that the Tobinick Appellants largely based their unfair competition claim (Count II) on their Lanham Act false advertising claim (Count I). The Tobinick Appellants now appeal.
JURISDICTION AND STANDARD OF REVIEW
We have jurisdiction of this appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We review de novo "the district court's interpretation and application of a statute" such as California's anti-SLAPP statute. Royalty Network, Inc. v. Harris, 756 F.3d 1351, 1354 (11th Cir. 2014). We review for an abuse of discretion the district court's denial of leave to amend and the denial of requests for relief brought under Rules 37, 56(d), and 60(b). World Holdings, LLC v. Fed. Republic of Germany, 701 F.3d 641, 649, 654-55 (11th Cir. 2012) (Rule 56(d)); Garfield v. NDC Health Corp., 466 F.3d 1255, 1270 (11th Cir. 2006) (leave to amend); Serra Chevrolet, Inc. v. Gen. Motors Corp., 446 F.3d 1137, 1146-47 (11th Cir. 2006) (Rule 37); Cox Nuclear Pharmacy, Inc. v. CTI, Inc., 478 F.3d 1303, 1314 (11th Cir. 2000) (Rule 60(b)).
Further, we review a grant of summary judgment de novo, "viewing all facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving [*12] party and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of that party." McCullum v. Orlando Reg'l Healthcare Sys., Inc., 768 F.3d 1135, 1141 (11th Cir. 2014). "Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Id.
III. The Tobinick Appellants' Discovery-Related Requests for Relief
The Tobinick Appellants argue that the district court abused its discretion in not granting relief under Rules 37, 56(d), and 60(b) because Dr. Novella misled the Tobinick Appellants and the district court through his deposition testimony, thereby prejudicing the Tobinick Appellants by an unfavorable summary judgment ruling.
Under Rule 60(b), a party may move for relief from a final judgment or order, for reasons including fraud. Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b).11 The moving party must show "by clear and convincing evidence that an adverse party has obtained the verdict through fraud, misrepresentation, or other misconduct." Cox Nuclear Pharmacy, 478 F.3d at 1314 (quoting Frederick v. Kirby Tankships, Inc., 205 F.3d 1277, 1287 (11th Cir. 2000)).
11 Because the Tobinick Appellants did not specify the grounds on which they were moving, the district court reasonably construed the basis as for "fraud . . . , misrepresentation, or misconduct by an opposing party." Edward Lewis Tobinick, M.D. v. Novella, No. 9:14-cv-80781, 2015 WL 11254727, at *1 (S.D. Fla. Sept. 15, 2015) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(3)). On appeal, the Tobinick Appellants do not challenge the district court's construction.
Under Rule 37(b)(2), a party may move for sanctions for failure to comply with a discovery order. [*25] Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b)(2). A district court has broad discretion in applying these sanctions, and "a default judgment sanction," as requested by the Tobinick Appellants, "requires a willful or bad faith failure to obey a discovery order." Malautea v. Suzuki Motor Co., 987 F.2d 1536, 1542 (11th Cir. 1993).
Rule 56(d) provides: "[i]f a nonmovant shows by affidavit or declaration that, for specified reasons, it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition, the court may: (1) defer considering the motion or deny it; (2) allow time to obtain affidavits or declarations or to take discovery; or (3) issue any other appropriate order." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(d).
First, to support his requests for Rules 37 and 60(b) relief, the Tobinick Appellants allege a scheme to ruin Dr. Tobinick perpetrated by Dr. Novella and other co-conspirators, but none of his claims are sufficient to demonstrate bad faith or fraud justifying sanctions or reconsideration. Dr. Novella explained each of the alleged false statements in his deposition. As to his communications with the author of the Los Angeles Times article, Dr. Novella testified that at the time of the deposition he did not remember a brief email conversation that had occurred more than two years prior. And, Dr. Novella explained that he truthfully answered his reasonable interpretation [*26] of the questions regarding his communications with Ingraham and Barrett.12 The Tobinick Appellants' conjecture of an elaborate conspiracy is not sufficient to controvert Dr. Novella's reasonable explanations and certainly is insufficient to demonstrate bad faith or fraud. It, consequently, was not an abuse of discretion for the district judge to deny the motions under Rules 37 and 60(b).
12 Specifically, Dr. Novella's declaration provided that his deposition did not contain false statements because (1) as to Ingraham, he was asked if he discussed the topic of Dr. Tobinick with Ingraham, but the emails show one-sided emails from Ingraham to Dr. Novella, but did not contain responses from Dr. Novella, and (2) as to Barrett, he answered that he could not recall whether or not an email exchange took place and therefore never falsely denied the existence of such emails in his deposition.
Second, the district court did not abuse its discretion on the Rule 56(d) issue as the Tobinick Appellants never made a proper motion for Rule 56(d) relief. "A request for a court order must be made by motion." Fed. R. Civ. P. 7(b)(1). Instead, the Tobinick Appellants requested Rule 56(d) relief in their brief responding to Dr. Novella's motion for summary judgment. The district court did not issue an order regarding Rule 56(d), likely because it was not moved to do so. Indeed, the Tobinick Appellants had once before sought relief pursuant to Rule 56(d) by motion pending the close of discovery, and the district court both considered and ultimately granted the motion. To the extent that the Tobinick Appellants' request for Rule 56(d) relief is premised on the same discovery-related abuses as their other two motions, their claim fails because for the reasons already stated the district court did not [*27] abuse its discretion. Thus, the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying each of the Tobinick Appellants' discovery-related requests for relief.
For all of the reasons stated above, the judgment of the district court is AFFIRMED.
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