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Free Speech

Alleged "Psychic Intuition" Still 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 by Chief Magistrate Judge Raymond E. Patricco (D. Idaho) in Scofield v. Guillard:

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 … asserting two defamation claims against Defendant. One is premised upon false statements regarding Plaintiff's involvement with the murders themselves. The other is premised upon false statements regarding Plaintiff's romantic relationship with one of the murdered students….

On May 16, 2023, Defendant filed her Answer, Affirmative Defenses, and Counterclaims to Complaint. Within her Answer and Counterclaims, Defendant denied that she defamed Plaintiff because the accusations made against Plaintiff in Defendant's TikTok videos are "substantially true."  Defendant maintained 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."  Defendant also affirmatively asserted 11 counterclaims against both Plaintiff and her legal counsel….

On August 8, the court dismissed the defendant's counterclaims and granted plaintiff's motion to quash a summons to her counsel; and yesterday, the court rejected a motion to reconsider that.

[1.] Among other things, the court says, in part:

Defendant disagrees with the Order and claims that it is void … because it "is obviously biased, one-sided, lacks in impartiality, and likely maliciously motivated." She [argues] … that the Court violated her First Amendment Rights by ruling on the plausibility of her tarot card reading and psychic abilities ….

Defendant responded to Plaintiff's defamation claims by going on the offensive [with her counterclaims], alleging that those claims (as well as statements made by Plaintiff's counsel to the media about those  claims) were themselves defamatory and purposely brought by Plaintiff and her counsel to systematically deprive Defendant of her constitutional rights to free speech and due process…. [T]hese counterclaims presumed—and depended upon—an alternate version of events surrounding the murder of 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 Court's August 8, 2023 Memorandum Decision and Order dismissed Defendant's counterclaims because there was "no objective basis to believe that Plaintiff did the things that Defendant publicly and repeatedly claims she did." Defendant's "intuitive abilities," "spiritual acuity," and "investigative skills" were not enough to allow the Court to infer the existence of a plausible claim against Plaintiff.

Defendant takes issue with the Court's analysis. She argues that, because the Court "does not have subject matter jurisdiction over the plausibility of spiritual practices," its August 8, 2023 Memorandum Decision and Order is void … ("The Court intentionally erred in denouncing tarot readings and [Defendant's] spiritual connection as a spiritual practice for the purpose of overstepping the separation of the Church and State as  required by Federal laws and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.")….

[But t]o 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. Though courts generally construe pro se party filings liberally, a court may dismiss as frivolous, claims that are "clearly baseless"—"a category encompassing allegations that are fanciful, fantastic, and delusional." …

Here, Defendant's counterclaims were supported only by her spiritual intuition. But intuition—even if summoned by one's spirituality—does not make a legal claim plausible. Otherwise, there would be no standard against which such claims can be tested under Rule 12(b)(6) and asserted First Amendment protections would automatically insulate affirmative claims from dismissal (while conversely protecting actionable conduct as well). This is not the standard, nor can it be. At bottom, claims must be based in fact, not conclusory and unverifiable beliefs. With this standard in mind, the Court simply held that, absent objectively-verifiable factual allegations, Defendant's counterclaims were implausible—nothing more, nothing less.

But the Court did not stop there. It went on to explain how "each of Defendant's counterclaims against Plaintiff is also legally deficient." In other words, Defendant's counterclaims were not dismissed only because they were deemed implausible; each counterclaim distinctly failed as a matter of law. These merits-based shortcomings separately undercut Defendant's argument that the Court's August 8, 2023 Memorandum Decision and Order is void for impermissibly commenting on the plausibility of Defendant's spiritual practices. Defendant's Motion is denied in this respect.

[2.] The court also concluded that plaintiff's defamation claim could go forward:

[W]hile statements made to law enforcement may be subject to a qualified privilege [rebuttable by a showing of knowing falsehood -EV], Defendant's TikTok videos existed independent of any criminal investigation into the murder of the four University of Idaho students. That is, the allegedly-defamatory statements embedded within Defendant's TikTok videos were not relayed just to law enforcement as part of a discrete criminal investigation into the murders. Instead, they were effectively disseminated world-wide. That statements may have also been communicated to law enforcement does not then immunize them, particularly when no charges have ever been brought against Plaintiff….

[Plaintiff] has alleged that Defendant made false and defamatory statements implicating Plaintiff in a relationship with a student and the murder of four students, that Defendant knew her statements were false, and that Plaintiff was damaged as a result. These allegations support a defamation claim under Idaho law. A motion to dismiss is not the proper legal mechanism for substantively challenging those allegations. That is the function of either a motion for summary judgment or, eventually, trial….

[3.] The court rejected defendant's claim "that Plaintiff's allegations, even when taken as true, fail to show that the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000," the threshold for federal lawsuits based on diversity of citizenship among the parties:

Defendant points to the fact that Plaintiff neither lost her job nor was prevented from advancing in her field … ("Defendant … did not harm [Plaintiff's] reputation. In fact, [Plaintiff's] reputation increased positively as proven by news media, social media, and her Go Fund Me fundraising campaign."). Defendant also questions the extent of Plaintiff's alleged "severe mental distress" and, relatedly, how Defendant could have even caused such injuries when it was Plaintiff who "killed the four University of Idaho students" in the first instance and nobody believed in "the power of the tarot and [Defendant's] psychic abilities" anyway….

[But] Defendant's TikTok videos accuse Plaintiff of not only having an improper relationship with a student, but then masterminding the murder of four students to keep that relationship a secret. Plaintiff alleges that these videos are defamatory and that she suffered actual injuries to her life, career, and mental health as a result. Without weighing in on the merits of these claims, it is not unreasonable for Plaintiff to seek damages that compensate her for these alleged injuries. Nor is it inconceivable that such damages exceed $75,000 depending on the nature and extent of those alleged injuries. That the parties dispute the facts informing these aspects of Plaintiff's case are not resolved here, but instead must be determined by the trier-of-fact based upon the evidence. As such, the Court cannot find to a "legal certainty" that Plaintiff's claims against Defendant are really for less than $75,000 and simply a procedural maneuver to falsely obtain federal jurisdiction….

[4.] And the court also concluded that it had personal jurisdiction over defendant, because the defendant's speech, though originating from outside Idaho, was focused on plaintiff's behavior in Idaho and was likely to cause harm in Idaho. For similar reasons, it concluded that Idaho was a proper venue for the case.

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