A recent ruling by a Lebanon County judge allows the continuation of a defamation lawsuit filed by Matthew A. Shirk against supporters of a Political Action Committee that was critical of his candidacy for Lebanon County Commissioner.
The lawsuit stems from this spring’s Republican primary for Lebanon County Commissioner, a race in which Shirk was defeated by incumbent GOP commissioners Bill Ames and Bob Phillips.
In a decision filed on September 30, President Judge John C. Tylwalk denied a request for an immediate dismissal of the lawsuit Shirk filed against Leadership Lebanon Valley PAC 2019 and Katy and Samuel Abram. They have until October 21 to file a response to Shirk’s allegations.
A relative political newcomer, Shirk received the party’s endorsement over Ames, in a move that was criticized by other Lebanon County elected officials including former State Senator Mike Folmer (R-Senate District 48), State Rep. Russ Diamond (R-102), and State Rep. Frank Ryan (R-101).
As LebTown has previously reported, a contentious primary campaign followed, in which Shirk, financed by a political consulting firm with close connections to Lebanon County Republican Committee Chairman Casey Long, accused Ames of nepotism and ran attack ads against Ames in print and on TV.
Shirk came in third in the Republican primary election, ending his quest for the office.
Shirk himself became the target of retaliatory attacks and negative advertising in the run-up to the primary. One such effort was a web site named “www.shadyshirk.com.” It was published by LLVPAC 2019, a political action committee registered to Katy and Samual Abram. Samuel Abram is a North Cornwall Township supervisor.
Among other allegations, the PAC website claimed that Shirk’s home was “under foreclosure,” which was incorrect. While a mortgage foreclosure lawsuit against Shirk’s home had in fact been started, it had been discontinued by the time the website went online.
LLVPAC and the Abrams refused a demand by Shirk’s attorney to take the web site down, but changed it to say that Shirk’s home had “recently” been under foreclosure.
But Shirk says a Facebook page also sponsored by LLVPAC renewed the identical “under foreclosure” claim about a week before the primary election, even though LLVPAC and the Abrams knew at that point that it was false.
Defamation lawsuit – “actual malice” claimed.
Shirk filed a defamation lawsuit against the Abrams and LLVPAC alleging the website and Facebook page contained false and defamatory statements, notably the “under foreclosure” claims, that were damaging to his personal and business reputations.
As a candidate for public office and the treasurer of the local Republican party, Shirk is considered a “public figure.” To win a defamation lawsuit, public figures have to additionally prove that the false statements were made with “actual malice,” which broadly means an intent to do harm, rather than a mistake.
Shirk maintained the fact that the “under foreclosure” claim was renewed and repeated on Facebook, after the defendants had been notified that it was not true, was evidence of actual malice on the part of the Abrams and LLVPAC.
Judge denies defendants’ request for quick dismissal
The Abrams and LLVPAC filed preliminary objections to Shirk’s defamation claims, asking that the lawsuit be immediately dismissed. In a type of legal pleading known as a “demurrer,” they argued that Shirk had not stated facts that, even if true, would constitute “actual malice.”
In other words, the preliminary objections stated that even if every fact Shirk alleges is proven to be true, it still wouldn’t be enough to show “actual malice,” and without actual malice Shirk, a public figure, can’t win a defamation lawsuit.
Judge Tylwalk disagreed and refused to dismiss Shirk’s lawsuit. He ruled that if a trial jury finds that LLVPAC and the Abrams intentionally repeated the “under foreclosure” claim on Facebook, knowing it was false, it could be considered proof of actual malice.
What happens now?
LLVPAC and the Abrams are required to file a formal answer to the lawsuit by October 21.
Then, as with most lawsuits, the likeliest outcomes are a trial or an out-of-court settlement. But first several months of “discovery” may take place, where the parties will exchange evidence and question witnesses under oath.
No trial date has been set, and it is unlikely that one will occur before the second half of 2020.