Lokhova v. Halper

Decision Date27 February 2020
Docket Number1:19-cv-632 (LMB/JFA)
Citation441 F.Supp.3d 238
Parties Svetlana LOKHOVA, Plaintiff, v. Stefan A. HALPER, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Virginia

Steven Scott Biss, Law Office of Steven S. Biss, Richmond, VA, for Plaintiff.

Terrance Gilroy Reed, Robert Kirk Moir, Lankford & Reed PLLC, Alexander Richard Green, LeClair Ryan, Alexandria, VA, Matthew E. Kelley, Ballard Spahr LLP, John Francis Hundley, Trout Cacheris & Solomon, PLLC, Patrick John Curran, Jr., Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, Washington, DC, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Leonie M. Brinkema, United States District Judge

Before the Court is Svetlana Lokhova's ("Lokhova" or "plaintiff") three-count Amended Complaint [Dkt. No. 52] brought against Dow Jones & Company, Inc. d/b/a the Wall Street Journal ("the Journal"), the New York Times Company ("the New York Times"), WP Company, LLC d/b/a the Washington Post ("the Post"), and NBCUniversal Media, LLC d/b/a MSNBC ("NBCUniversal") (collectively, "the media defendants"), Stefan A. Halper ("Halper"), and MSNBC contributor Malcolm Nance ("Nance"),1 alleging defamation (Count I); common law conspiracy (Count II); and tortious interference with contracts and business expectancies (Count III). Halper and the media defendants have moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint, and Halper has filed a motion for sanctions and a motion for leave to file a supplemental memorandum in support of sanctions. Plaintiff has responded to the motions, defendants have filed reply briefs, and oral argument has been held. For the reasons that follow, the motions to dismiss will be granted, and Halper's motion for sanctions and motion for leave to file a supplemental memorandum in support of sanctions will be denied without prejudice.

I. BACKGROUND
A. Procedural History

On May 23, 2019, Lokhova filed her initial complaint. [Dkt. No. 1]. On August 8, 2019, all served defendants moved to dismiss the complaint [Dkt. Nos. 22, 31, 38, 41, 44], and Halper filed a motion for sanctions. [Dkt. No. 35]. In response, Plaintiff filed the pending Amended Complaint [Dkt. No. 52], which among other changes added Nance as a defendant. In response, the first round of motions to dismiss were denied as moot. [Dkt. No. 53]. All defendants, except for Nance, subsequently filed new motions to dismiss. [Dkt. Nos. 58, 61, 63, 64, and 68].

B. The Amended Complaint 2

The 73-page Amended Complaint ("complaint") alleges a wide-ranging conspiracy among the defendants to defame and injure Lokhova and others. Specifically, the complaint alleges that Halper colluded with the media defendants and others to "leak false statements about Plaintiff as part of a nefarious effort to smear General [Michael] Flynn and fuel and further the now debunked and dead narrative that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia." Id. ¶ 20. The complaint asserts that Halper intentionally misrepresented that Lokhova was a "Russian spy" who "had an affair with General Flynn on the orders of Russian intelligence" and "compromised General Flynn." Id. ¶ 4.3 The complaint further alleges that "Halper, with the full knowledge and acquiescence of the media [d]efendants," used the media defendants' platforms and "massive public followings" "as a bullhorn and an echo chamber to amplify and republish the defamation to an unprecedented and unimaginable degree," id. ¶ 20, and that all defendants acted with actual malice, id. ¶ 189.

Lokhova is a United Kingdom citizen who was born in Russia. Id. ¶ 12. The complaint asserts that Lokhova "is not and never has been a Russian spy or an agent of Russian intelligence or any branch or agency of the Russian government." Id. ¶ 25. She began studying at Cambridge University in 1998, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Masters' degree in history. Id. ¶ 12. Her Masters dissertation focused on the founder of the Soviet intelligence service. Id. As part of her studies, Lokhova "was instructed to travel to Moscow, where she obtained declassified documents from RGASPI, the former Communist Party archive." Id. ¶ 29.

In 2004, Lokhova began a doctoral program in Soviet Intelligence Studies at Cambridge, but she left the program later that year to pursue a career in finance. Id. ¶ 29, 30. Among other entities, Lokhova worked for what appears to be a Russian bank, Troika Dialog UK Ltd. Id. 30. She returned to Cambridge sometime around 2012 and began participating in the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar ("the Seminar"), an academic forum focusing on intelligence issues. Id. ¶ 32, 33. Halper, whom the complaint refers to as a "counterintelligence operative," id. ¶ 13 n.4; a spy, id. ¶ 1; and a "ratf***er," id., was also a member of the Seminar. Id. ¶ 33.4

In January 2014, Richard Dearlove, the former director of British intelligence, and Christopher Andrew, Lokhova's then-mentor, invited Lokhova to a dinner at Dearlove's house on February 28, 2014, which General Flynn, who was then the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency ("DIA"), was also expected to attend. Id. ¶ 42. The "purpose of the dinner was to promote the program that was to become the ‘Cambridge Security Initiative’ (CSI), a group chaired by Dearlove." Id. ¶ 43.5 Plaintiff claims that all guests were "pre-cleared in advance with the DIA." Id. ¶ 137. Approximately twenty people attended the dinner. Id. ¶ 45. At the beginning of the dinner, Flynn briefly introduced himself to Lokhova and another Cambridge fellow. Id. ¶ 44. Lokhova did not sit next to Flynn or approach him. Id. ¶ 45, 137. At the end of the dinner, "Andrew invited Lokhova to address General Flynn," which led to a "brief, public group exchange with General Flynn and Dearlove." Id. ¶ 46 (underlined and bolded in original). Lokhova "showed Flynn, Dearlove, and others in the group a discovery from the official Stalin Archive," namely a postcard from Stalin displaying "a photograph of an ‘erotic statue’ " and containing words that "are very un Stalin like," which "makes people re-examine how they think about ‘Uncle Joe.’ " Id. ¶ 137 (emphasis in original). Lokhova told a reporter from the New York Times that the conversation lasted "ten mins tops," id. ¶ 137, while her partner David North told the Journal that it was a "twenty-minute public conversation." Id. ¶ 107. The complaint alleges that "[n]o one expressed any concerns of any kind" about the events of this dinner, which Halper did not attend, id. ¶ 46-47, and that Halper knew that nothing concerning occurred at the dinner because a Cambridge colleague told him as much. Id. ¶ 47 n.7. The complaint further asserts that Dearlove "would never have allowed Lokhova to attend an event with General Flynn ... if Dearlove had had any concerns with Lokhova," id. ¶ 42, and that Lokhova and Dearlove continued to engage professionally without issue in the years following the dinner, see, e.g., id. ¶61. The complaint includes a photo of Dearlove shaking hands with Flynn at the dinner. Id. ¶ 49.

After the dinner, "Andrew asked Lokhova to stay in occasional contact with General Flynn," in the hopes that "Flynn might speak again at the Seminar or do business with CSI." Id. ¶ 50. Lokhova "had occasional email contact with General Flynn after February 2014," and "Andrew was copied or saw all the email exchanges, which were general in nature." Id. The complaint states that Flynn did not sign any of these emails "General Misha," did not invite Lokhova to Moscow, and did not ask Lokhova to serve as a translator. Id. ¶ 51-53. Apart from the 2014 dinner and these emails, Lokhova has not spoken to or met with Flynn. Id. ¶ 137.

In December 2015, Flynn traveled to Moscow. Id. ¶ 62. Lokhova "never discussed going to Moscow with General Flynn" and "did not even know about" the trip. Id. ¶ 64. In "late 2015, General Flynn informally became an advisor to the Trump presidential campaign." Id. ¶ 65. "Sometime in early 2016, the FBI began to investigate Flynn ‘based on his relationship with the Russian government.’ " Id. ¶ 66 n.10.

In January 2016, Andrew invited Lokhova and her partner to have dinner with Halper and his wife. Id. ¶ 68. The complaint alleges that Halper wanted to "probe [Lokhova] for information relating to Flynn." Id. ¶ 70. Lokhova declined the invitation, which "outraged" Andrew, after which "relations deteriorated" between the two, resulting in Andrew "walk[ing] away from [a] lucrative publishing contract" he and Lokhova had with Basic Books and Penguin. Id. ¶¶60, 72. Later that year, Lokhova obtained other publishing contracts with Norton US and Harper Collins for her book "The Spy Who Changed History," id. ¶ 78, which was ultimately published in June 2018, id. ¶ 12 (linking to https://www.svetlanalokhova.com/biography).

The complaint alleges that in July 2016, Halper resigned from his role as co-convener of the Seminar "to assist the FBI in its covert investigation of the Trump campaign." Id. ¶ 76 n. 11. The complaint further alleges that after the November 2016 election, "Halper seeded" media outlets "with false and defamatory statements about Lokhova and General Flynn - statements that were eagerly republished with no evidentiary support and for the sole purpose of advancing the sensational and false narrative." Id. ¶ 82. In December 2016, non-defendant the Financial Times published an article titled "Intelligence Experts Accuse Cambridge Forum of Kremlin Links." Id. ¶¶ 83-84. The article stated, in part, that Dearlove and Halper stepped down from the Seminar due to perceived Russian influence on the group. Id. ¶ 84. The complaint claims that the alleged "Russian influence" was intended to refer to Lokhova, id. ¶ 85, and that neither Halper nor Dearlove genuinely had any concern about any such influence. Instead, Halper's "misrepresentations and propaganda ... were designed to seed the false narrative about Lokhova." Id. ¶ 86.

In January 2017, Flynn was appointed National Security Advisor, but he resigned less than a month later. Id. ¶¶ 90, 91. The...

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