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Steele v. Goodman

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

April 1, 2019

ROBERT DAVID STEELE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
JASON GOODMAN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          M. HANNAH LAUCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on five motions: (1) Defendant Patricia A. Negron's Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim (“Negron's Motion to Dismiss”), [1] (ECF No. 47); (2) Defendant Jason Goodman's “Special Motion to Dismiss the Complaint Under the VA Anti-Slapp Statute” (“Goodman's Motion to Dismiss”), [2] (ECF No. 45); (3) Goodman's Motion to Sever, [3] (ECF No. 46); (4) Goodman's Motion for Leave to Substitute Corrected Ghost Writing Form (the “Ghost Writing Motion”), [4] (ECF No. 71); and, (5) non-party D. George Sweigert's Motion to Intervene (the “Motion to Intervene”), [5] (ECF No. 73).[6] The Court also considers various non-party filings before it.

         The matters are ripe for disposition. The Court dispenses with oral argument because the materials before it adequately present the facts and legal contentions, and argument would not aid the decisional process. The Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.[7] For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny in part and grant in part Negron's Motion to Dismiss; deny Goodman's Motion to Dismiss; deny the Motion to Sever; grant the Ghost Writing Motion; and take the Motion to Intervene under advisement. Additionally, the Court will strike several non-party filings from the record.

         I. Procedural and Factual Background

         A. Procedural Background

         On September 1, 2017, Plaintiffs filed their original Complaint (the “Original Complaint”) against Jason Goodman, Patricia A. Negron, and “Queen Tut, a woman believed to be known as Carla A. Howell.” (Original Compl. 1, ECF No. 1.) Goodman, proceeding pro se, filed an Answer (the “Original Answer”), [8] (ECF No. 14), and Negron, by counsel, filed a Motion to Dismiss (the “Original Motion to Dismiss”), (ECF No. 21). Steele opposed the Original Motion to Dismiss, (ECF No. 24), and Negron replied, (ECF No. 29).

         On January 23, 2018, Plaintiffs requested entry of default as to “Queen Tut a/k/a Susan A. Lutzke.” (ECF No. 30.) Because the Original Complaint did not name as a defendant “Susan A. Lutzke, ” the Court denied Plaintiffs' request for entry of default. (See Mar. 9, 2018 Order, ECF No. 35.) On March 25, 2018, Plaintiffs moved to amend their Original Complaint, (ECF No. 36), and on April 11, 2018, the Court granted the motion, (ECF No. 38).

         On April 13, 2018, Plaintiffs filed the Amended Complaint. (ECF No. 39.) The Amended Complaint names three defendants: Jason Goodman, Patricia A. Negron, and “Susan A. Lutzke a/k/a/ ‘Queen Tut'” (collectively, “Defendants”). (Am. Compl. 1, ECF No. 39.) Plaintiffs state eight counts against each defendant as follows:

Count I: Defamation per se (the defamation claim);
Count II: Insulting words, in violation of Virginia Code § 8.01-45[9] (the insulting words claim);
Count III: Business conspiracy, in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-499[10] and Virginia Code § 18.2-500[11] (the statutory conspiracy claim);
Count IV: Common law conspiracy;
Count V: Tortious interference;
Count VI: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress;
Count VII: Personal trespass by computer in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-152.7[12] and computer harassment in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-152.7:1[13] (the computer claim);
Count VIII: Unauthorized use of name and picture in violation of Virginia Code § 8.01-40[14] (the unauthorized use claim); and,
Count IX: Permanent injunction.

         Plaintiffs seek $6, 000, 000 in compensatory damages; $18, 000, 000 as “[t]hree-fold [d]amages in accordance with § 18.2-500” of the Virginia Code; $350, 000 in punitive damages; prejudgment and postjudgment interest; and attorney's fees and costs. (Am. Compl. 96.)

         In response to the Amended Complaint, Goodman filed Goodman's Motion to Dismiss and the Motion to Sever. On the same day, Goodman filed an Answer.[15] (ECF No. 44.) Negron filed Negron's Motion to Dismiss. Lutzke did not respond to the Amended Complaint and has not made an appearance of any kind.[16] Plaintiffs responded in opposition to Goodman's Motion to Dismiss and Goodman replied. Plaintiffs also responded in opposition to the Motion to Sever. Goodman did not file a reply, and the time to do so has expired. Finally, Plaintiffs responded in opposition to Negron's Motion to Dismiss and Negron replied.

         On September 3, 2018, Plaintiffs requested entry of default as to Lutzke. (ECF No. 65.) On September 6, 2018, the Clerk entered default as to Lutzke. (ECF No. 66.)

         Various non-parties have also submitted documents in this matter. George D. Sweigert, a non-party proceeding pro se, [17] has filed seven declarations.[18] (ECF Nos. 51, 54, 55, 56, 58, 59, 60.) Sweigert also filed two Notices of Change of Address, (ECF No. 63, 67), and a Notice of Related Litigation, (ECF No. 68). On February 19, 2019, Sweigert filed a “Notice of Motion to Intervene, ” (ECF No. 72), and then, on the same day, filed the Motion to Intervene, [19] (ECF No. 73). Goodman opposed the Motion to Intervene. Sweigert subsequently sent several letters to the Clerk's Office. (ECF Nos. 75, 77.) On March 18, 2019, Sweigert filed a “Notice of Intent to File an Amended Motion, ” (ECF No. 81), but he has not filed any amended motion to date. In the interest of judicial efficiency, the Court will order Sweigert to file an Amended Motion to Intervene, should he still wish to do so.[20] On March 29, 2019, Sweigert filed a document titled “Preliminary Notification to the Government of Canada.” (ECF No. 84.)

         Additionally, on March 15, 2019, non-party Jacqulyn Weaver[21] filed a Declaration.[22](ECF No. 79.) On March 15, 2019, non-party Dean Fougere[23] filed a “General Affidavit.”[24](ECF No. 80.) On March 18, 2019, non-party Steve Outtrim[25] filed a “Statement in Response to” Goodman's Response opposing Sweigert's Motion to Intervene.[26] (ECF No. 82.) Finally, on March 29, 2019, non-party Kevin Marsden[27] filed a “Statement in Response to” Goodman's Response opposing Sweigert's Motion to Intervene.[28] (ECF No. 83.) The Court will strike the Should Sweigert fail to timely file an Amended Motion to Intervene, the Court will consider only the current Motion to Intervene and will not accept an amended motion after the deadline. If Sweigert does not file an Amended Motion to Intervene by the April 12, 2019 deadline, then Plaintiffs, Negron, and Lutzke must respond to the Motion to Intervene, (ECF No. 73), presently before this Court by no later than close of business Tuesday, April 23, 2019. filings that Weaver, Fougere, Outtrim, and Marsden submitted. See Kimberlin, 2014 WL 12680738 at *1.

         B. Summary of Allegations in the Complaint [29]

         This action arises out of a series of allegedly defamatory statements that Defendants made against Plaintiffs beginning on June 15, 2017. (Am. Compl. 20.) The Court first provides context about the relevant parties to the action, followed by a summary of Defendants' actions and statements.

         1. Plaintiffs: Steele and the Earth Intelligence Network

         Steele describes a long list of professional accomplishments, presenting himself as a former Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) operations officer, a former civil servant, and the holder of various advanced degrees. (Am. Compl. 6.) Steele works to “redirect[] the craft of intelligence away from spies and secrecy enabling war and waste towards open sources and methods favorable to peace and prosperity.” (Id. 8.) In support of this work, Steele formed and operated a company[30] that ultimately helped draft the “NATO Open Source Intelligence Handbook.”[31] (Id.) Steele asserts, without elaboration, that “[f]or over twenty (20) years, [Steele] has dedicated himself to teaching individuals and organizations about the value of holistic analytics, true cost economics, and Open Source Everything Engineering.” (Id. 7.) Steele “was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize” based on this work. (Id. 8.)

         In 2006, Steele founded Earth Intelligence Network (“EIN”), a Virginia 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, and Plaintiff in this action. (Id. 9.) “The original purpose and long-term focus of Earth Intelligence Network is to teach citizens the urgency of demanding holistic analytics, true cost economics, and Open Source Everything Engineering (OSEE) as the foundation for enlightened self-governance.” (Id. 9.) In order to fulfill this purpose, EIN started the #UNRIG (sometimes UNRIG) project, “an educational campaign to communicate to all citizens the possibility of an ethical, legal, non-violent restoration of integrity to the United States Government.” (Id.) Plaintiffs describe the #UNRIG campaign as

a legitimate full-time effort to unrig the system, “to restore integrity and truth to governance, with the informed will and wisdom of We the People at its heart”, and “to enjoy a transparent government by 2022, that operates with honesty, respecting our planet and the human spirit, so that we may create a healthy, prosperous America rooted in truth with peace as our shared condition[.]”

(Id. 87-88 (quotations in original without attribution).) In support of this mission, Plaintiffs “acquired and professionally wrapped an RV, and began a national tour of the [c]ountry in furtherance of the ‘Summer of Peace' campaign.”[32] (Id. 86.)

         Public donations fund the #UNRIG campaign, and EIN “is fully transparent and accountable to its donors.” (Id. 9.) Plaintiffs aver they “account[] for every penny spent in a budget that was posted online.” (Id. 86 (providing a weblink).) Using the donations, Plaintiffs “actively promote[] the mission of #UNRIG and communicate[] with all donors.” (Id.)

         2. Defendants: Goodman, Negron, and Lutzke

         According to Plaintiffs, Goodman operates “various social media properties” under the name “Crowdsource The Truth” or “CSTT.”[33] (Am. Compl. 11.) Plaintiffs quote Goodman, without attribution, describing CSTT as “an independent news organization dedicated to truth in media and integrity in government. Our process is driven by a unique, open source fact checking ‘truth engine' that has been described as a combination of investigative journalism, social media[, ] and reality television.” (Id.) Goodman creates and uploads videos through the various CSTT media properties, which have thousands of followers.[34] “Goodman solicits donations, advertises products and derives revenue from” these videos. (Id.) Goodman often hosts guest speakers in these videos, including Negron and Lutzke.[35]

         Plaintiffs aver that Negron “co-produced numerous videos uploaded to the CSTT YouTube channel.” (Id. 12.) She “appeared and actively participated in virtually every video at issue in this action, one of which was even filmed at her home.” (Id.) Negron allegedly has over 24, 000 followers on Twitter, where she allegedly republished defamatory statements made by Lutzke about Plaintiffs. (Id.)

         According to Plaintiffs, Lutzke adopted the pseudonym “Queen Tut” as her online persona, using an image of an Egyptian bust[36] to represent herself.[37] (Id. 16.) Lutzke participated in numerous CSTT videos speaking as Queen Tut. In the videos, Defendants refer to Lutzke as Queen Tut and display a picture of the Egyptian statue to represent Lutzke.

         3. Defendants' Actions Through September 1, 2017[38]

         Steele planned on appearing in a CSTT live-stream broadcast on June 15, 2017, in which Goodman and Negron would interview Steele. (Am. Compl. 18.) The day before the scheduled interview, on June 14, 2017, Goodman and Negron published a video that reported, seemingly falsely, that a dirty bomb was present on a ship.[39] As a result of this event, and the ensuing FBI investigation, Steele “immediately canceled the planned interview” and informed Goodman via email that Steele did not wish to associate with Goodman any longer. (Id. 19.) According to Plaintiffs, “in retaliation and reprisal for [Steele's] decision to no longer have anything to do with Goodman and CSTT, Goodman, Negron[, ] and Lutzke began an unprecedented smear campaign against Plaintiffs.” (Id. 20.)

         As part of this “smear campaign, ” Goodman, Negron, and Lutzke produced and published at least a dozen videos between June 15, 2017 and September 1, 2017. On June 16, 2017, Goodman and Negron produced and appeared in a video in which Goodman states he “made a big mistake” with Steele. (Id. 21 (quoting Goodman).) In a second video produced and published on the same day, in which both Goodman and Negron appear, Goodman makes disparaging remarks about Steele. Plaintiffs describe the video as “scripted ahead of time, ” after Goodman and Negron “discussed the subject matter and content via email, telephone and/or text message. They agreed upon the thesis, theme and tone. Goodman and Negron [spoke] with one voice.” (Id. 22.) In a June 20, 2017 video, Goodman and Negron appear together in a London hotel room, and Goodman accuses Steele of stealing from the CSTT audience at least three times. (Id. 23.)

         On June 26, 2017, Lutzke appeared in a CSTT video as Queen Tut to accuse Steele of fraud. The June 26, 2017 video description provides that “Confidential Crowdsource contact Queen Tut believes [Steele] has perpetrated a deliberate fraud and details her position in this phone call.” (Id. 24 (purporting to quote Goodman).) The Amended Complaint includes a screenshot of the video, showing a stillshot of a man on the left (Goodman) and a photo of an Egyptian bust meant to represent Lutzke. In this video, Goodman states, “I question if he, [sic] if any of his credentials are authentic. I think he's just a cheap con man.” (Id. 25 (quoting the June 26, 2017 video).) In the same video, Goodman states that Steele “knows it's a useless campaign[;] he's just trying to suck $250, 000 out of people.” (Id. (quoting the June 26, 2017 video).) Lutzke agrees, stating, “He's really conning people and he's trying to manipulate me.” (Id. (quoting the June 26, 2017 video).) Goodman accuses Steele of being “involved in a pretty serious financial scam” and of “defrauding people across state lines, ” stating that “a Rico[40][sic] charge could be involved” because “it seems like he is doing things that are very criminally actionable.” (Id. (quoting the June 26, 2017 video).) Goodman describes Steele as displaying “schizophrenic behavior” and refers to him as “the robber David who [s]teals.” (Id. (quoting the June 26, 2017 video).)

         Between June 15, 2017 and September 1, 2017, Goodman, Negron, and Lutzke published dozens of similar videos. The Amended Complaint provides great detail, including links, screenshots, and direct quotations excerpted from these videos. Goodman appears in all of the videos and is the primary speaker. Plaintiffs allege that Negron co-produced most of the videos, also appearing in many of them, thereby contributing to the insults against Steele and #UNRIG. Lutzke makes a guest appearance on many videos, insulting Steele directly. Lutzke also published derogatory information about Steele on her Twitter account.

         Defendants' exact invectives vary over the course of the videos, sometimes focusing on personal insults against Steele[41] and sometimes making accusations against Steele and his organizations, including Plaintiff EIN. Goodman calls Steele a “fraudster, ” and states that “[Steele]'s lying.” (Id. 28, 45, 55 (quoting various videos).) He claims “that the objective of the UNRIG campaign is to ‘get money' for [Steele].” (Id. 41 (quoting an August 13, 2017 video).) Lutzke calls EIN's #UNRIG campaign “a total scam” and states that “Robert David Steele and UNRIG are trying to raise money, as much money as they possibly can to fund their little scam.” (Id. 40, 46 (quoting multiple videos).) Negron calls Steele “a serious con man.” (Id. 45 (quoting an August 26, 2017 video).) Negron further states: “this is a serious fraud. I mean that it is a fraud. No. question.” (Id. 46 (quoting an August 26, 2017 video).) Defendants refer to “the Electoral Reform Act”[42] and describe it as part of Plaintiffs' scam. (See, e.g., id. 45 (quoting an August 26, 2017 video).)

         In addition to these videos, the Amended Complaint describes several other online platforms through which Defendants publish disparaging comments regarding Plaintiffs, including Twitter and email. On August 11, 2017, for example, Goodman emailed Dr. Cynthia Ann McKinney, [43] stating that Steele “has repeatedly made ignorant and even racist comments, has defrauded my audience of money, has personally and publicly insulted me and is actively attempting to co-opt your credibility to raise funds.” (Id. 38.)

         Although some inconsistencies exist, [44] the videos and publications, amply excerpted in the Amended Complaint, share a consistent theme. Defendants persistently accuse Plaintiffs of perpetuating a scam and a fraud on CSTT viewers who donated to EIN's #UNRIG campaign, accusing Plaintiffs of stealing donors' money to personally enrich Steele or his allies[45] rather than using the funds for the #UNRIG mission.

         4. Defendants' Actions After September 1, 2017

         Plaintiffs allege that a shift occurred after the filing of this action. While Goodman and Lutzke intensified their attacks against Plaintiffs, Negron ceased to participate in any subsequent video productions or appearances (with one exception). Although Plaintiffs concede Negron ceased her conspiring activities regarding video production with Goodman, Plaintiffs maintain that Negron and Lutzke continued to conspire to defame Plaintiffs through Twitter publications. Negron also limited her role to republishing some of Lutzke's statements.

         Between September 1, 2017 and December 2017, [46] Plaintiffs allege that Goodman and Lutzke produced and published about ten videos containing defamatory statements about Plaintiffs. Many of the videos reiterate the same kinds of statements made in previous videos. For example, in one video, Goodman states, “Steele is not in fact engaged in a campaign to execute election reform.” (Am. Compl. 50 (quoting a September 6, 2017 video).) Lutzke also alleges that Steele did not engage in his “Summer of Peace” campaign, claiming “[t]hey never went anywhere. Basically, it never happened.” (Id. 52 (quoting a September 11, 2017 video).)

         Defendants also acknowledge and discuss the ongoing litigation in their videos. In a September 23, 2017 video, Goodman and Lutzke “accuse [Steele] of engaging in a ‘conspiracy to suppress free speech.'” (Id. 55.) Lutzke states that “we were the ones who revealed his basic fraud that he's been perpetuating for a number of years using this electoral reform act.” (Id. (quoting a September 23, 2017 video).) In the same video, Goodman suggests that Steele “is trying to raise money so he can buy RVs so he can crash them and buy soft drinks and give gifts.” (Id. 56 (quoting a September 23, 2017 video).) Lutzke states, “Steele is in a conspiracy to take down Crowdsource the Truth.” (Id. 57 (quoting a September 23, 2017 video).) In a different video featuring Goodman and Lutzke, Goodman states “we have very solid evidence of fraud.” (Id. 60 (quoting a September 30, 2017 video).) Goodman describes himself as “happy” about the lawsuit “go[ing] forward” because the lawsuit will expose “charity fraud and tax fraud.” (Id. 62 (quoting an October 7, 2017 video).)

         Knowledge of the lawsuit does not appear to deter Goodman or Lutzke from attacking Plaintiffs.[47] Well after actual notice of the lawsuit, communicated in the September 23, 2017 video described above, Goodman and Lutzke published other videos disparaging Plaintiffs. In one video, Goodman and Lutzke refer to Steele's “fraudulent election reform campaign.” (Id. 61 (quoting a September 30, 2017 video). Lutzke calls this “charity fraud . . . [T]hat's a fact.” (Id.) Goodman warns viewers that they, as donors, may face legal consequences:

if someone tries to take a tax deduction on their donation to the Earth Intelligence Network, they themselves could be in legal jeopardy - you should consult your accountant and an attorney before you try to take a tax deduction on any donation made to this fraudulent 501c3. This is a public service announcement to members of the crowdsource community who have been victims of fraud - fraud executed by Robert David Steele.

(Id.) On November 27, 2017, Goodman published a video containing an image of Steele's face superimposed onto a farm animal's rear end. (Id. 65 (containing a screenshot from the video).) CSTT viewers can purchase t-shirts and coffee mugs featuring this image. (Id. 66.)

         In a December 27, 2017 video featuring Goodman, Negron, [48] and Lutzke (as Queen Tut), Defendants discuss the costs Negron has expended on retaining counsel. Lutzke states that “as soon as” counsel for Plaintiffs takes “any kind of action against Queen Tut, ” she “will file a complaint with the Virginia State Bar and . . . have his license.” (Id. 70 (quoting a December 27, 2017 video).) Lutzke states that she sent documents to the Court related to this case, although she has not yet made an appearance of any kind.[49] (Id. 72.)

         Plaintiffs contend that some of the videos incite violence against Steele. In one video featuring Goodman and Lutzke, Lutzke directly addresses Steele: “you're a person who needs to be put down.” (Id. 57 (quoting a September 23, 2017 video).) According to Plaintiffs, Goodman interjects to say “legally speaking, ” and Lutzke then says: “legally speaking[, ] absolutely legally speaking[, ] that you need to be put in a place where you can no longer affect human beings.” (Id. (quoting a September 23, 2017 video).) Goodman and Lutzke published a different video that includes an image of an RV exploding. (Id. 59 (containing a screenshot of a September 30, 2017 video).) The side of the flaming RV displays a picture of Steele and McKinney. This image also includes a cartoon figure holding a rifle, with an image of Steele's face superimposed onto the cartoon, standing in the foreground. Plaintiffs further aver that Goodman and Lutzke “disclosed [Steele's] home address to their viewers and subscribers, and used Google Maps to show a photo of [Steele]'s home.” (Id.)

         Since December 2017, Goodman, acting alone, has continued to make allegedly defamatory statements against Plaintiffs. For example, he published at least four videos between February 2018 and April 13, 2018, the date of the filing of this Amended Complaint. (Id. 70- 73.) Goodman repeats similar accusations of fraud present in earlier videos. (Id. 73.)

         Lutzke, similarly, has published, through Twitter and videos, negative commentary about Plaintiffs since December 2017. In one Twitter post, Lutzke calls Steele “the greatest plagiarizer and liar on the internet.” (Id. 78.) And according to Plaintiffs, Lutzke “has now escalated the falsehoods to and [sic] include accusations that [Steele] protects pedophiles, defends child traffickers, wants JIHAD in the United States, has committed ‘espionage' and ‘treason', and [sic] etc.” (Id. 75.)

         Negron has neither produced nor appeared in any more videos since December 2017. Though not creating content, Plaintiffs aver that Negron continued to conspire with Lutzke to defame Plaintiffs, and that Negron republished some of Lutzke's Twitter publications as part of this conspiracy. (Id. 13.)

         II. Analysis: The Motions to Dismiss

         A. Standard of Review: Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss

          “A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of a complaint; importantly, it does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (citing 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1356 (1990)). To survive Rule 12(b)(6) scrutiny, a complaint must contain sufficient factual information to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) (“A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”) Mere labels and conclusions declaring that the plaintiff is entitled to relief are not enough. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Thus, “naked assertions of wrongdoing necessitate some factual enhancement within the complaint to cross the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         A complaint achieves facial plausibility when the facts contained therein support a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556; see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). This analysis is context-specific and requires “the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Francis, 588 F.3d at 193. The Court must assume all well-pleaded factual allegations to be true and determine whether, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, they “plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79; see also Kensington, 684 F.3d at 467 (finding that the court in deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss “must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint' and ‘draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff” (quoting Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d at 440)).

         B. The Court Will Grant in Part and Deny in Part Negron's Motion to Dismiss

          Negron's Motion to Dismiss challenges all nine counts of the Amended Complaint. According to Negron, “the Amended Complaint cites only five actual statements in total made by” her, none of which can form the basis of a claim against her. (Mem. Supp. Negron Mot. Dismiss 2, ECF No. 48.) Negron attempts to distinguish her conduct from that of her co-defendants, arguing she cannot be liable for their actions in this case. The Court concludes that Plaintiffs allege sufficient facts for five counts to survive against Negron's Motion to Dismiss: the defamation claim; the statutory conspiracy claim; the common law conspiracy claim; the tortious interference claim; and the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. The Court will grant Negron's Motion to Dismiss as to the four other claims raised against her: the insulting words claim; the computer claim; the unauthorized use claim; and the request for a permanent injunction.

         1. The Defamation Claim Survives Negron's Rule 12(b)(6) Challenge

         a. Legal Standard: Defamation per se

         In Virginia, [50] a plaintiff claiming defamation must allege the “(1) publication[51] (2) of an actionable statement with (3) the requisite intent.” Jordan v. Kollman, 612 S.E.2d 203, 206 (Va. 2005). “To prevail on a claim for defamation, a party must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the allegedly defamatory statements are both false and defamatory, so ‘harm[ing] the reputation of another as to lower [her or] him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with [her or] him.'” Cook, Heyward, Lee, Hopper, & Feehan, P.C. v. Trump Va. Acquisitions LLC, No. 3:12cv131, 2012 WL 1898616, at *3 (E.D. Va. May 23, 2012) (first alteration in original) (quoting Chapin v. Knight-Ridder, Inc., 993 F.2d 1087, 1092 (4th Cir. 1993)). “If the statements at issue are either not defamatory, objectively true, or protected expressions of opinion, ” no actionable defamation exists. Id. at *3 (citing Am. Commc'ns Network v. Williams, 568 S.E.2d 683, 686 (Va. 2002)). Virginia makes no distinction between an action for written defamation-i.e., libel-and one for spoken defamation-i.e., slander. Fleming v. Moore, 275 S.E.2d 632, 635 (Va. 1981).

         A statement is defamatory per se if, among other circumstances not pertinent here, it “imputes an unfitness to perform the duties of a job or a lack of integrity in the performance of the duties” or “prejudices the party in [his or] her profession or trade.” Yeagle v. Collegiate Times, 497 S.E.2d 136, 138 n.2 (Va. 1998) (citing Fleming, 275 S.E.2d at 635).[52] Otherwise, “to be defamatory, a statement must be more than unpleasant or offensive . . . .” Hockycko v. Entrodyne Corp., No. 6:05cv25, 2005 WL 3132320, at *6 (W.D. Va. Nov. 22, 2005). “Defamatory words ‘make the plaintiff appear odious, infamous, or ridiculous.'” Cutaia v. Radius Eng'g Int'l, Inc., No. 5:11cv77, 2012 WL 525471, at *3 (W.D. Va. Feb. 16, 2012) (quoting Chapin, 993 F.2d at 1092).

         “Pure expressions of opinion, not amounting to ‘fighting words,' cannot form the basis of an action for defamation.” Chaves v. Johnson, 335 S.E.2d 97, 101 (Va. 1985). Such expressions include “speech which does not contain a provably false factual connotation, or . . . which cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts about a person.” Besen, 2012 WL 1440183 at *3 (alteration in original) (quoting Yeagle, 497 S.E.2d at 137); see also Harrell v. Colonial Holdings, Inc., 923 F.Supp.2d 813, 823 (E.D. Va. 2013) (“Statements of opinion are generally not actionable, because such statements cannot be objectively characterized as true or false.” (citing Jordan, 612 S.E.2d at 206)). Expressions of opinion include “[s]tatements that are relative in nature and depend largely upon the speaker's viewpoint.” Jordan, 612 S.E.2d at 206 (citation omitted). Similarly, “rhetorical hyperbole, even if insulting, offensive, or otherwise inappropriate, is not actionable.” Choi v. Kyu Chul Lee, 312 Fed.Appx. 551, 553 (4th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         Nonetheless, “[d]efendants can be held liable for defamation ‘when a negative characterization of a person is coupled with a clear but false implication that the [speaker] is privy to facts about the person that are unknown to the general [listener].” Baylor v. Comprehensive Pain Mgmt. Ctrs., Inc., No. 7:09cv00472, 2011 WL 1327396, at *11 (W.D. Va. Apr. 6, 2011) (quoting Robert D. Sack, Sack on Defamation: Libel, Slander, and Related Problems § 4:3.2 (4th ed. 2010)). “The test for determining whether facts that may be actionable defamation have been implied is ‘whether a reasonable listener would take [the speaker] ...


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