A federal judge in Wyoming on Wednesday dismissed a civil defamation lawsuit by the family of a fallen U.S. Marine against actor Alec Baldwin. However, an attorney for the plaintiffs promised to immediately re-file the case in a new jurisdiction based on how the judge chose to dismiss the case in Wyoming.
According to the case file, Marine Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum died when a suicide bomber detonated a device at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021. His wife Jiennah McCollum was pregnant, and Baldwin — who came to know the family via an online fundraiser — decided to donate $5,000. The soldier’s sister, Roice McCollum, was Baldwin’s point of contact.
In January 2022, Roice McCollum posted a photo on Instagram which she captioned with the word “Throwback.” Court documents said the photo was “instantly recognizable” as having been taken on Jan. 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol. Baldwin saw the post, and a back-and-forth ensued in both the public sphere and via direct message.
“Are you the same woman that I sent the $ to for your sister’s husband who was killed during the Afghanistan exit?” Baldwin asked, according to the case file.
Roice confirmed that she was indeed Rylee’s sister.
The two then exchanged several direct messages in which Baldwin expressed disapproval of Roice’s participation in the siege; Roice defended her actions via DM, according to court papers:
Baldwin: “When I sent the $ for your late brother, out of real respect for his service to this country, I didn’t know you were a January 6th rioter.”
Roice: “Protesting is perfectly legal in the country and I’ve already had my sit down with the FBI. Thanks, have a nice day!”
Baldwin: “I don’t think so. Your activities resulted in the unlawful destruction of government property, the death of a law enforcement officer, an assault on the certification of the presidential election. I reposted your photo. Good luck.”
Baldwin then reposted the photo publicly with this description:
I did some research. I found, on IG, that this woman is the brother [sic] of one of the men who was killed. I offered to send her sister-in-law some $ as a tribute to her late brother, his widow and their child. Which I did. As a tribute to a fallen soldier. Then I find this. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Later, Baldwin allegedly said this to Roice McCollum: “There are hateful things posted toward you that are wrong. Irony was my point. The irony of sincerely wanting to honor your brother and the fact that you are an insurrectionist. Irony: ‘the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny’ (Merriam Webster).”
Several of the McCollums sued Baldwin in federal court in Wyoming for defamation, invasion of privacy, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. tThe lawsuit characterized Baldwin in highly negative terms and cast the McCollum family as stalwart patriots who protested on Jan. 6 “in a peaceful, law-abiding manner,” without “support[ing] or condon[ing] the rioting that erupted.” Naturally, Baldwin moved to dismiss the action.
U.S. District Judge Nancy D. Freudenthal agreed with Baldwin and dismissed the case via an 8-page order on Wednesday.
The judge scuttled the lawsuit by concluding quite simply that she, as a federal judge in Wyoming, could not exercise personal jurisdiction over Baldwin. However, she also tacitly suggested that the underlying case might be weak because Baldwin was expressing “opinions” about Roice McCollum — though toward the bottom of the order she did suggest that the case could be filed elsewhere.
The introduction to the order lays out the overall reasoning:
This case arises from opinions expressed by Defendant Baldwin through social media posts and private messages concerning Plaintiff Roice McCollum’s attendance at the Washington, D.C. events on January 6, 2021. Plaintiffs (“the McCollums”) allege Mr. Baldwin’s opinions resulted in hateful messages and threats by third parties toward them, and they bring this action alleging various causes of action. Baldwin argues for dismissal on a number of grounds, including lack of personal jurisdiction. The motion has been fully briefed. The Court finds and concludes that the McCollums have failed to meet their burden of proof in showing that this Court may properly exercise personal jurisdiction over Mr. Baldwin. Therefore, the Court GRANTS Defendant Baldwin’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction.
“Because the Court’s decision is limited to personal jurisdiction, there is no need to address the multitude of allegations, claims and arguments from the complaint or the briefing,” the order continues.
The order then recounts exactly why Baldwin cannot be hauled into court in Wyoming:
Suffice it to say that it is undisputed that Mr. Baldwin was born and raised in New York, and resides in New York currently (as he has for decades). He has never lived in Wyoming, or transacted any regular business or performed any regular work or service in Wyoming; never derived substantial revenue from goods or services in Wyoming; never filed income taxes in Wyoming (which has no income tax); never subscribed to a telephone in Wyoming; never held any license issued by Wyoming; and never held a bank account or other material assets in Wyoming. Mr. Baldwin was in New York when the events alleged in the complaint occurred.
The judge then walked briskly yet copiously through Wyoming personal jurisdiction law to conclude that the only form of jurisdiction which might exist as to Baldwin is “specific personal jurisdiction.”
“Specific jurisdiction exists where a defendant does not have continuous contacts with the forum state, but the plaintiff shows that 1) the defendant has purposefully directed its activities at residents of the forum state and 2) the plaintiff’s alleged injuries ‘arise out of or relate to’ those activities,” the judge noted, quoting and citing multiple cases.
In the Tenth Circuit, in which Wyoming sits, the inquiry was “distilled” to a shorter version of the test: “whether the defendant took “(1) an intentional action; (2) expressly aimed at the forum state; and (3) with knowledge that the brunt of the injury would be felt in the forum state.”
The judge rationed that Baldwin didn’t meet the test (emphasis in the original):
The only factual allegations relating to Mr. Baldwin’s intentional actions are the few private Instagram messages he sent to Roice McCollum, and the post on his own Instagram feed (which re-posted her public Instagram post/photo). Mr. Baldwin’s public post on his own Instagram feed cannot reasonably be considered expressly aimed at Wyoming given Mr. Baldwin’s “2.4 million Instagram followers.” Further, the allegations that Mr. Baldwin was aware that his followers are sympathetic to his political affiliation, that they are more likely to be politically active and opinionated, that he fueled the firestorm of hatred from his followers, and did nothing to remedy what he had started, also are not intentional actions by Mr. Baldwin that were expressly aimed at Wyoming.
“In short, the well-established principles of personal jurisdiction are determinative in this case,” the judge continued. “A few Internet communications from Mr. Baldwin in New York to Roice McCollum in Wyoming are insufficient to establish that he expressly aimed any allegedly tortious conduct at Wyoming.”
“Further, the fact that Mr. Baldwin placed content on his own Instagram feed from New York – that his 2.4 million followers could access world-wide – also does not subject Mr. Baldwin to jurisdiction in Wyoming,” the judge added.
The final relevant paragraph expounds on that rationale:
Following the instructions given by the Tenth Circuit, this Court must examine whether the defendant “deliberately directed [his] message at an audience in the forum state and intended harm to the plaintiff occurring primarily or particularly in the forum state.’” That did not occur here, and neither Mr. Baldwin’s wealth, fame or number of followers changes the analysis. Also, the McCollum’s argument that “Baldwin cannot simply pick a fight in Wyoming and scurry back to his Manhattan penthouse claiming he is immune from the consequences of his action in Wyoming” is entirely unpersuasive. Mr. Baldwin was never in Wyoming to “pick a fight” and did not “scurry back” as he never left New York. Mr. Baldwin is not “immune” from the consequences of any tort simply because of this Court’s determination that it lacks personal jurisdiction. However, the allegedly tortious conduct by Mr. Baldwin in New York, by way of posting a photo and content on his own Instagram feed, was not deliberately directed at an audience in Wyoming, thus any allegation that it was intended to harm plaintiffs primarily or particularly in Wyoming is insufficient for personal jurisdiction.
The original lawsuit asked for $10 million in compensatory damages and $15 million in punitive damages against Baldwin.
Attorneys Dennis C. Postiglione of Texas and Joseph N. Casas of California were lead counsel for the plaintiffs. Frank Chapman of Wyoming was local counsel.
In response to a Law&Crime email seeking comment or reaction to the judge’s order, Postiglione noted that though Baldwin moved for complete dismissal with prejudice, the judge refused to go that far. He suggested that the case would promptly be refiled in a “new jurisdiction.”
“Keep in mind that we have asserted more than just Defamation claims,” Postiglione wrote. “Even if Baldwin’s statements may be considered ‘opinions’ (they are not), his posting still constitutes negligence, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Read the judge’s full order below:
[Editor’s note: we’ve omitted legal citations in quotes in this piece. The full citations are in the embedded document above.]
[Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images.]
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