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Steele v. Goodman

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

July 25, 2019

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


          M. Hannah Lauck, United States District Judge.

         This matter comes before the Court on non-party David George Sweigert's Second Amended Motion to Intervene (the "Motion to Intervene").[1] (ECF No. 93.)

         The matter is 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.[2] For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny Sweigert's Second Amended Motion to Intervene.[3]

         I. Procedural and Factual Background[4]

         A. Relevant 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"), (ECF No. 14), and Negron, by counsel, filed a Motion to Dismiss (the "Original Motion to Dismiss"), (ECF No. 21). Plaintiffs 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 "Susan A. Lutzke" as a defendant, 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).

         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 stated 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[5] (the insulting words claim);
Count III: Business conspiracy, in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-499[6] and Virginia Code § 18.2-500[7] (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[8]and computer harassment in violation of Virginia Code § 18.2-152.7: 1[9](the computer claim);
Count VIII: Unauthorized use of name and picture in violation of Virginia Code § 8.01-40[10] (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 his Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 45.) Negron filed a Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 47.) Lutzke did not respond to the Amended Complaint and has not made an appearance of any kind.[11] On March 31, 2019, the Court granted in part and denied in part Negron's Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 86.) The following claims survive against Negron: Count I (defamation); Count III (business conspiracy); Count IV (common law conspiracy); Count V (tortious interference); and, Count VI (intentional infliction of emotional distress).[12] (Mar. 31, 2019 Mem. Op. 38.) The Court also denied Goodman's Motion to Dismiss, meaning that all nine original claims survive against Goodman. (Id. 39.)

         B. Sweigert's Filings in This Case

         Between May 22, 2018 and June 13, 2018, George D. Sweigert, a non-party proceeding pro se, filed seven declarations.[13] (ECF Nos. 51, 54, 55, 56, 58, 59, 60.) The Amended Complaint makes no allegations about Sweigert, referencing him only once in a footnote that identifies him as one of several other people in a photo of Steele that allegedly defames Steele. (Am. Compl. 65 n.14.) Sweigert also filed two Notices of Change of Address, (ECF No. 63, 67), and a Notice of Related Litigation, (ECF No. 68).[14]

         On February 19, 2019, Sweigert filed a "Notice of Motion to Intervene," (ECF No. 72), and his first Motion to Intervene, (ECF No. 73). Sweigert subsequently filed copies of several letters with the Clerk's Office.[15] (ECF Nos. 75, 77.) On March 18, 2019, Sweigert filed a "Notice of Intent to File an Amended Motion." (ECF No. 81.) On March 28, 2019, Sweigert filed a document titled "Preliminary Notification to the Government of Canada."[16] (ECF No. 84.) On March 29, 2019, Sweigert filed an Amended Motion to Intervene. (ECF No. 88.) On April 11, 2019, Sweigert filed the Motion to Intervene now before the Court.[17] (ECF Nos. 93, 94.) Plaintiffs, Goodman, and Negron all oppose the Motion to Intervene. Sweigert has replied to each response.[18] (ECF Nos. 110, 111, 116.)

         C. Summary of Allegations in the Amended Complaint

         This action arises out of a series of allegedly defamatory statements that Defendants made about 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 recipient 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.) Plaintiffs assert, 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" for this work. (Id. 8.)

         In 2006, Steele founded Earth Intelligence Network ("EIN"), a Virginia 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, and a 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.) 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."[19] (Id. 87.)

         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."[20] (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 accounts, which have thousands of followers.[21] "Goodman solicits donations, advertises products and derives revenue from" these videos. (Id.) Goodman often hosts guest speakers in these videos, including Negron and Lutzke.

         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. at 13.)

         According to Plaintiffs, Lutzke adopted the pseudonym "Queen Tut" as her online persona, using an image of an Egyptian bust to represent herself. (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 bust to represent Lutzke. (Id.)

         3. Defendants' Alleged Actions Before September 1, 2017

         Steele planned to appear 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 posted a video that reported, seemingly falsely, that a dirty bomb was present on a ship.[22] (Id. 18-19.) As a result of this event, and the ensuing FBI investigation, Steele "immediately canceled the planned interview" and informed Goodman via email that he no longer wished to associate with Goodman. (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.)

         Between June 15, 2017 and September 1, 2017, Goodman, Negron, and Lutzke allegedly produced and published at least a dozen videos as part of this "smear campaign." (Am. Compl. passim.) 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, accusing Steele and his UNRIG campaign of fraud. (Id. 24.) From then through September 1, 2017, Goodman, Negron, and Lutzke posted dozens of similar videos.[23] Steele contends that Defendants' exact statements vary over the course of the videos, sometimes focusing on personal insults against Steele[24] and sometimes making accusations against Steele and his organizations, including Plaintiff EIN.[25]

         In addition to these videos, the Amended Complaint describes several other online platforms through which Defendants allegedly publish disparaging comments regarding Plaintiffs, including Twitter and email. In essence, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants persistently accuse them of perpetuating a scam and defrauding CSTT viewers who donated to EIN's #UNRIG campaign by stealing donors' money to personally enrich Steele or his allies rather than using the funds for the #UNRIG mission.

         4. Defendants' Alleged 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). (Id. 48.) Although Plaintiffs concede Negron ceased her improper activities regarding video production with Goodman, Plaintiffs maintain that Negron and Lutzke continued to conspire to defame Plaintiffs through Twitter publications. Negron limited her role to reposting some of Lutzke's statements. (Id. 13.)

         Plaintiffs allege that, between September 1, 2017 and December 2017, [26] 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. Defendants apparently acknowledge and discuss the ongoing litigation in these videos. Goodman describes himself as "happy" about the lawsuit because it will expose "charity fraud and tax fraud," of which he claims to have "very solid evidence." (Id. 60, 62 (quoting September 30, 2017 and October 7, 2017 videos).)

         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[J 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 posted a different video displaying an image of an RV exploding. (Id. 59 (displaying an apparent screenshot of a September 30, 2017 video).) The side of the flaming RV displays a picture of Steele and McKinney. Plaintiffs 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.[27] Lutzke has also disseminated, through Twitter and videos, negative commentary about Plaintiffs since December 2017.[28] Negron has neither produced nor appeared in any more videos since December 2017.[29]

         D. Sweigert's Allegations ...

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