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Elliott v. Murdock

Supreme Court of Idaho

December 2, 2016

CANDACE ELLIOTT, individually and FOR THE LOVE OF PETS FOUNDATION, INC., an Idaho corporation, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
STEVE MURDOCK, Defendant-Respondent.

         2016 Opinion No. 141

         Appeal from the District Court of the Seventh Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Jefferson County. Hon. Alan C. Stephens, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is affirmed.

          Whittington Law Office, Chtd., Idaho Falls, for appellant.

          Hopkins Roden Crockett Hansen & Hoopes, PLLC, Idaho Falls, and Duane Morris, LLP, San Francisco, California, for respondent.

          J. JONES, Chief Justice

         This case arises from statements made on a call-in radio show by Mr. Murdock about his neighbor Ms. Elliott. The show's hosts were discussing a Bonneville County case that involved allegations of horse abuse and neglect. Ms. Elliott called in to comment. Several callers later, Mr. Murdock called in. He questioned the veracity of Ms. Elliott's statements and made various claims about the horse meat market and (referring to Ms. Elliott) "Andi's humane society."

         Ms. Elliott filed suit, alleging that seven of Mr. Murdock's statements defamed her individually and her foundation, For The Love Of Pets, Inc. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Murdock. Ms. Elliott timely appealed, limiting her appeal to the statement, "Andi's humane society puts .02% of the money they hit everybody up [sic] back into the care of animals, " which she alleges defames both her and her foundation.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Candace (Andi) Elliott moved to rural Hamer, Idaho, from Virginia in 2001. Soon after her move, Ms. Elliott became involved with the Humane Society, serving as president of the Upper Valley Humane Society for several years in the early 2000s. She deems herself an advocate for animal welfare. Her concern for the welfare of pets and livestock in her community is reflected in her frequent letters to the editor on animal welfare subjects in local newspapers. During the last six years, she has authored over one hundred such letters. She has also made over a dozen calls to the Sheriff's Office seeking "welfare checks" of certain animals in Hamer and neighboring communities. There is also evidence that the Sheriff's Office has occasionally asked her for assistance in animal welfare cases and referred citizens with animal welfare related questions to her.

         Ms. Elliott has also been involved in litigation related to her activities. In her zeal to discover the condition of animals, she has frequently been observed peering into yards and over neighbor's fences, often taking pictures of others' animals. She has also been accused of entering others' property to check on or tend to animals. Indeed, Ms. Elliott was charged with trespass in 2008, 2009 and 2011. She entered a guilty plea in 2008 and judgment was withheld. The 2009 case was dismissed, and Ms. Elliott was acquitted in 2011.

         She has sued individuals who have pressed trespassing charges against her. She sued her neighbor, Brenda Murdock, for testifying against her in connection with trespass charges. She also filed a combined suit against the Jefferson County Sheriff, Jefferson County Prosecutor, a Jefferson County deputy, a Jefferson County deputy prosecutor, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, the Jefferson County Commissioners, and Jefferson County Commissioner Jerald Raymond.

         This suit arises from comments made by Ms. Elliott's neighbor, Steve Murdock, on the Neal Larson radio show in March 2012. The show's host was discussing a case of potential horse neglect and abuse in Bonneville County that county officials were investigating. He asked listeners to call in and comment on whether there should be laws to require owners to properly care for their animals or whether the law should respect the owner's property rights. Several listeners responded to the invitation to call in. Ms. Elliott called and commented on the Bonneville County case, giving additional "facts" she had gleaned from conversations with friends and her interaction with the alleged owner. Several callers later, Mr. Murdock called in and expressed his opinion of Ms. Elliott. He also expressed his view regarding the appropriateness of slaughter houses and horse meat markets. He also declared that (referring to Ms. Elliott) "Andi's humane society puts .02% of the money they hit everybody up [sic] back into the care of animals."

         In March 2014, Ms. Elliott filed suit in Jefferson County, alleging that seven statements made by Mr. Murdock during the course of the radio broadcast were defamatory as to her individually and to her foundation, For The Love Of Pets, Inc. ("the Foundation"). During the course of the litigation, the original seven statements were pared down to two allegedly defamatory statements. On April 30, 2015, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Mr. Murdock. On June 12, 2015, Ms. Elliott and the Foundation timely appealed, limiting the appeal to Mr. Murdock's statement, "And Andi's humane society puts .02% of the money they hit everybody up [sic] back into the care of animals, " alleging that it defamed her and the Foundation.

         II. ISSUES PRESENTED ON APPEAL

         1.Whether the district court erred in granting summary judgment to Mr. Murdock.

         2. Whether the district court erred in striking the declaration ...


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