A group of community activists accused of defaming a local company have fired back in Genesee County Circuit Court. In a motion filed today, the so-called “Burton Moms” accuse the plaintiffs in that case—Cernet LLC, Zito Construction, Neil Martz, John Zito, and Zi-Mar LLC—of abusing the court system to punish them for speaking up against the company’s expansion plans. They also say the company filed the suit to intimidate them and others so that they will not oppose future expansion efforts, or report ordinance violations.
Steven Shelton, the attorney for four of the Burton Moms, filed the motion. He called the Plaintiffs’ motives “transparent”. All of the alleged defamatory statements were made at public hearings and were recorded, and Shelton said none of those statements were defamatory. “Everything is on tape,” he said, “and when you listen to the recordings, it’s obvious that most if not all of the things they claim these Moms said were never actually said.”
For example, the lawsuit claims Deborah Egan, one of the Burton Moms, accused Plaintiff Neil Martz of having an “unlawful” conflict of interest at the October 1, 2007 Burton City Council Meeting. But, said Shelton, “when you listen to the recording, there’s absolutely no reference to any conflict of interest at all. It’s a completely fictitious allegation.”
Even if Egan had made the statements Cernet and Zito claim they made, they would not be defamatory, Shelton said. “One of the duties of a citizen is to point out potential conflicts of interest in government. If the U.S. State Department put the head of Halliburton in charge of overseeing Halliburton’s overseas operations, that would be a conflict of interest. What Cernet and Zito claim in this lawsuit is that it would be defamatory to point this out.”
Shelton also noted that virtually nowhere in the complaint do the plaintiffs actually quote the words the Burton Mom spoke. Instead, he said, they “creatively paraphrase” in an attempt to make innocent comments sound nefarious. “If they quoted the actual words, they wouldn’t have had a case or any excuse to file this lawsuit,” he said. “I think it says a lot about the motives of these people that they have to invent words and take things completely out of context. It’s a disgusting abuse of the system. This is a classic example of what is referred to as a SLAPP suit: a frivolous lawsuit brought for the sole purpose of punishing people for exercising their Constitutional rights. It’s obvious from the claims being raised, the way in which they have to distort what was said to make these claims, the timing of the case, and the way they are dragging their feet on serving some of the named defendants that this case is nothing more and nothing less. These plaintiffs owe these women, the residents of the City of Burton, and the taxpayers of this community a public apology.”
The motion asks the court to dismiss the suit and order the plaintiffs to pay the Burton Moms’ legal bills. Shelton said he did not know the exact amount of these bills, but said it was “easily several thousand dollars, and it climbs every day this lawsuit drags on. That’s one reason we wanted to put a stop to this as soon as possible.”
A hearing on the motion will be held September 8, 2008 at 10:30 a.m. before Judge Geoffrey Neithercut.
Steven Shelton is an attorney in private practice in Fenton, Michigan. Initial consultations are always free. To schedule an appointment, contact attorney Steven Shelton on-line or by telephone at 810-750-1420.