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Alleged "Psychic Intuition" Isn't Enough to Make a Federal Claim "Plausible" Enough to Withstand Dismissal

An allegedly psychic "Internet sleuth" alleged a professor was involved in the University of Idaho student murders; the professor sued; then the "sleuth" countersued.


From yesterday's decision in Scofield v. Guillard, written by Chief Magistrate Judge Raymond E. Patricco (D. Idaho); see here for more on the plaintiff's libel lawsuit (this decision is about the defendant's counterclaims):

This case arises out of the tragic murder of four University of Idaho students in November 2022. Plaintiff Rebecca Scofield is a professor at the University of Idaho. She alleges that she never met the students and was not involved with their murders in any way. Notwithstanding, Plaintiff alleges Defendant Ashley Guillard posted over 100 sensational TikTok videos falsely claiming that she had an inappropriate romantic affair with one of the victims and then ordered the murders to prevent the affair from coming to light. In turn, Plaintiff initiated this action on December 21, 2022 (Dkt. 1), asserting two defamation claims against Defendant. One is premised upon false statements regarding Plaintiff's involvement with the murders themselves. The other premised upon false statements regarding Plaintiff's romantic relationship with one of the murdered students….

Within her Answer and Counterclaims, [the self-represented] Defendant denies that she defamed Plaintiff because the accusations made against Plaintiff in Defendant's TikTok videos are "substantially true." Defendant maintains that she "used her spiritual brain, intuition, spiritual practice, and investigative skills to uncover the truth regarding the murder of the four University of Idaho students; and published her findings on her TikTok social media platform." Relevant here, Defendant also affirmatively asserts 11 counterclaims against both Plaintiff and her legal counsel.

Defendant's counterclaims rely on two premises: (i) Plaintiff "initiated, planned, and executed the murders" of the four University of Idaho students to cover up an affair she had with one of the victims; and (ii) Plaintiff sought to "evade suspicion" for these murders by conspiring with her counsel to file a "frivolous" Complaint with "falsified factual allegations" that (a) supported the defamation claims against Defendant, and (b) deprived Defendant of her constitutional rights. Defendant further asserts that the conspiracy between Plaintiff and her counsel extended beyond the mere filing of Plaintiff's Complaint. It also included Plaintiff's counsel's defamatory statements to the media about Plaintiff's underlying lawsuit against Defendant….

Plaintiff (Scofield) moved to dismiss the counterclaims, and the court agreed:

To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient facts, accepted as true, that "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." A claim is facially plausible when a plaintiff pleads sufficient facts to allow the court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. The plausibility standard is not akin to a "probability requirement," but it requires more than a sheer possibility that the defendant acted unlawfully. Where a complaint pleads facts that are "merely consistent with" the defendant's liability, it "stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of 'entitlement to relief.'" … Whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief is a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense."

Courts generally construe pro se party filings liberally. Even so, a court may dismiss as frivolous, claims that are "clearly baseless"—"a category encompassing allegations that are fanciful, fantastic, and delusional." …

Defendant's Counterclaims Against Plaintiff Are Factually Implausible

Defendant responds to Plaintiff's defamation claims against her by going on the offensive, alleging that those claims (as well as statements made by Plaintiff's counsel to the media about those claims) are themselves defamatory and purposely brought by Plaintiff and her counsel to systematically deprive Defendant of her constitutional rights to free speech and due process…. Together, these counterclaims presume—and depend upon—an alternate version of events surrounding the murder of the four University of Idaho students: namely, that Plaintiff orchestrated the murders, and then colluded with her counsel to bring this action against Defendant to silence her clairvoyant insight into the true extent of Plaintiff's involvement. The problem with this theory, however, is that there is no objective basis to believe that Plaintiff did the things that Defendant publicly and repeatedly claims she did.

Defendant insists that her "intuitive abilities," "spiritual acuity," and "investigative skills" into the murders led her to Plaintiff. Specifically, she claims that, during her "spiritual research," she was "intuitively led to the University of Idaho History Department" and "spiritually inquired into each person listed on the History Department's webpage seeking their role in the murder[s]." As Defendant describes it, the insight into Plaintiff in particular "revealed that she was in a relationship with [one of the victims] that broke up and that she initiated the murders, planned the murders, and hired help to carry the plan out." The results of Defendant's "spiritual investigation" represent the only support for Defendant's belief that Plaintiff masterminded the murders and, correspondingly, the only justification for Defendant's counterclaims against her.

Significantly, only Defendant has these opinions about Plaintiff; the Court is unaware of similar claims from any other sources or the existence of any independent evidence remotely suggesting the same. When pressed for corroboration during oral argument, Defendant merely responded that she believed her allegations about Plaintiff were true and that, with discovery, she can find evidence that bears this out. Defendant also claimed that Plaintiff, as a professor at the University of Idaho, possibly knew the deceased students and was involved in their murders. Without more, these explanations do not support a plausible claim for relief under Twombly and Iqbal [the two relevant Supreme Court standards]..

To begin, Defendant cannot use discovery as a fishing expedition to find facts that might validate her counterclaims. This "ready, fire, aim" approach is not permitted under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Moreover, on a motion to dismiss, courts generally may not consider materials, including discovery, other than a complaint's allegations and documents made part of that complaint. In short, the pleading requirement does not provide a key to "unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions"; again, a complaint must be plausible on its face.

More to the point, Defendant does not present to the Court—in either her Answer and Counterclaims or her response to Plaintiff's Motion to Dismiss—a factual account that would allow the Court to infer the existence of a plausible claim against Plaintiff. Instead, based solely on her claimed ability to psychically divine the truth, Defendant makes extraordinary allegations about how Plaintiff orchestrated the murder of four people to cover up a secret, romantic relationship with one of the victims. These claims are not only conclusory and unverifiable, but arguably so outrageous as to be clearly baseless and, thus, implausible. Because the predicate components to Defendant's counterclaims against Plaintiff lack any basis in fact, those counterclaims should not proceed.

Additionally, Defendant attributes the conduct of Plaintiff's counsel to Plaintiff based upon a perceived conspiracy between them. But she offers no basis for concerted action. She simply assumes its existence throughout her Answer and Counterclaims when alleging that, together, Plaintiff and her counsel conspired to harm her. Reflexively lumping Plaintiff and her counsel together, without distinguishing their conduct in any way, fails to satisfy Rule 8. This is particularly problematic when, under Idaho law, claims of conspiracy must be pled with specificity….

Each of Defendant's Counterclaims Against Plaintiff Is Also Legally Deficient

[Among other things,] Idaho's judicial privilege forecloses Defendant's Second Counterclaim. The judicial privilege immunizes a party from civil liability for statements made in the course of judicial proceedings…. "Idaho has long recognized that defamatory statements made in the course of a judicial proceeding are absolutely privileged, even if made with malicious intent or knowledge of their falsity. The purpose of the judicial privilege is to keep the paths leading to the ascertainment of truth as free and unobstructed as possible." …

{The Court takes no position here as to whether Plaintiff's counsel's statements to the media after Plaintiff initiated this action are similarly privileged. Regardless, again, Plaintiff did not make these statements and there is no basis to hold Plaintiff responsible for statements made by her counsel.}

[The court also rejected defendant's conspiracy against civil rights (42 U.S.C. § 1985) claim for various reasons, including: -EV]

[T]he second part of § 1985(2) "requires an allegation of a class-based, invidiously discriminatory animus" behind the conspirators' actions.

Defendant fails to allege any facts supporting the conclusion that Plaintiff's Complaint was motivated by invidiously discriminatory class-based animus. Indeed, there is no allegation of such motivation at all. {Though not a part of Defendant's allegations against Plaintiff, Defendant's briefing on the subject attempts to equate her spirituality with a protected religious class. Opp. to MTD at 9 (Dkt. 35) ("[Plaintiff] vehemently asked the Court to decide that spiritual practices as in tarot readings, and spiritual connections as in mediumship and psychic intuition, are implausible. Ergo seeking that the Court discriminate against [Defendant] based on her spiritual practices."). But this misstates Plaintiff's claims against Defendant. Plaintiff's Complaint cannot be read as an attack on Defendant's spirituality, but on Defendant's false claim that Plaintiff murdered four people. Defendant's spirituality is immaterial to this claim. In any event, while it is possible that Defendant's psychic abilities relate to an unknown religious practice for the purposes of the second part of § 1985(2), it is also possible that it relates to a purely secular pursuit untethered to a protected class (e.g., a type of philosophy). Thus, it can be argued that Defendant may not rely on such allegations to plausibly show that her spirituality ipso facto amounts to protected religious practices vis à vis her § 1985(a) claim.}

Plaintiff is represented by Cory Michael Carone, Elijah Martin Watkins, and Wendy Olson (Stoel Rives LLP).