The legal battle between Liberty Township Trustee Mike Gemperline and the seven individuals he says defamed him and committed fraud when they tried to have him removed from office remains ongoing.
The lawsuit was filed by Gemperline in April and alleges that a number of individuals committed defamation, fraud in inducement to residents to sign petition; fraud in inducement to residents to donate funds; telecommunications harassment; unjust enrichment; abuse of process; frivolous conduct in filing civil claims; intentional infliction of emotional distress; false light and civil conspiracy.
The seven Powell residents named in the lawsuit — Domenico Franano, Karen Slavik, Rebecca Mount, Susan Miceli, Kerry Daly, William Houk and Gary R. Johnson — filed a motion in May asking Delaware County Common Pleas Judge David Gormley to dismiss the lawsuit.
The lawsuit centers around the legal battle that took place between Save Our Services, a local organization, and Liberty Township trustees Gemperline and Shyra Eichhorn.
In his lawsuit, Gemperline states Eichhorn made misleading posts on social media that led township residents to believe that Gemperline was attempting to replace Liberty Township EMS services. As a result, residents drafted a petition to remove Gemperline from office.
The lawsuit alleges the defendants got signatures from residents by misrepresenting the purpose of the petition as “saving” the local EMS service and not a petition to remove Gemperline from office.
The petition succeeded, and a complaint was filed against Gemperline, but it was later voluntarily dismissed by both parties before it went to trial.
In the lawsuit, Gemperline states the defendants never intended to try the complaint and just wanted to damage his reputation. Gemperline adds in the lawsuit that he has suffered emotional distress, economic damages, and health problems as a result of the complaint filed by the defendants.
Gemperline alleges that Daly, Houk, Johnson, Miceli and Mount formed the committee to collect signatures and file the complaint, and Slavik and Franano were “instrumental in the illegal actions” described in the lawsuit.
In their motion asking the court to dismiss the suit, the defendants’ attorneys argue that Gemperline’s complaint is too vague and fails to meet the any requirements to prove defamation, fraud, or any of the other charges in the suit.
The defendants also state they are protected by the Noerr-Pennington Doctrine, which broadly immunizes individuals who petition the government by invoking the First Amendment.
The defendants allege Gemperline’s lawsuit is a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) and say Gemperline is trying to “repress core political speech of his constituents.”
On June 26, Gemperline’s attorney, Joshua J. Brown, filed a response to the motion to dismiss and asked the court to allow him to amend and expand the complaint if the court believes the information is not specific or factual enough.
In his reply, Brown said the defendants are not protected by Noerr-Pennington, because it does not apply in this context.
“Noerr-Pennington is designed to address a situation where a party’s First Amendment right to petition conflicts with law prohibiting anti-competitive behavior, this is a situation the defendants in this case do not face,” Brown writes in his response, adding the defendants are not protected from breaking the law during the course of filing their petition.
“The federal Eighth Circuit held that ‘private defendants may not be protected by Noerr (when) their legitimate lobbying efforts may have been accompanied by illegal or fraudulent actions,’” writes Brown before citing a different ruling that says Noerr “was not intended to protect private parties who employ illegal means to influence their representatives in government.”
Brown then asks that the motion to dismiss the suit be denied.
The defendants responded on July 13, arguing they are protected by the Noerr-Pennington Doctrine, even if the lawsuit harmed his reputation.
“The Noerr-Pennington Doctrine protects free speech arising from and connected to litigation when the alleged harm is the natural result of genuine effort to obtain a governmental response,” the defendants write in defense of their motion to dismiss. “Here, Noerr-Pennington applies because Gemperline complains that his reputation was harmed when the defendants used the legal system in an effort to remove him from office. The defendants are entitled to have their First Amendment rights protected.”
Gormley has not yet ruled on the motion to dismiss. There have been no further filings in the case since the defendants’ reply on July 13.
The lawsuit asks that the defendants pay in excess of $25,000 in money damages, $1,218,000 in punitive damages, and demands the defendants pay Gemperline’s legal fees.