LOGAN – Two of the defendants in a lawsuit by a Pickaway County-based company against 22 residents of a Rockbridge subdivision have asked a judge to dismiss the company’s claims against them.
In a motion for dismissal filed March 16 in Hocking County Common Pleas Court, they allege that the lawsuit filed on Jan. 3 by Holiday Industries, Inc. against residents of The Cliffs subdivision is “an attempt to scare” property owners in the subdivision, They also argue that they are protected from litigation by a long-established legal doctrine that’s based in part on the First Amendment.
Holiday Industries’ lawsuit names as defendants 22 individuals with with addresses on Cliff Road in Rockbridge, whom it describes as owners and / or residents of real property in The Cliffs. The litigation centers on a piece of property in the subdivision, which online records of the Hocking County Auditor’s Office show is about a 3-acre tract.
In June of 2021, the legal complaint says, the company began trying to sell the property, hiring a real estate agent who put up a “for sale” sign on the site. After this was done, the lawsuit claims, two residents contacted the agent and said that they and other residents were upset about the proposed sale and believed that the property was a community park for the local residents to use, which was legally restricted from being sold.
Holiday Industries asserts that this claim about the property’s status is not backed up by legal documentation. Nonetheless, Holiday Industries alleges, when a buyer was found who was ready to pay $ 92,500 for the land, the two property owners contacted the title agency and repeated their belief that the site was a community park protected from sale, and that there was documentation showing this. As a direct result, the suit alleges, the title agency refused to provide title insurance, and because of this, the potential buyer terminated the sale contract ..
The suit claims the defendants’ actions have placed a “cloud” on the title, which makes it difficult to sell the property. Holiday Industries asks for a judgment quieting its title against the claims that have already been made and any similar claims that may be It also asks for at least $ 25,000 in damages from Jorge M. Ripoll and Debra P. Thompson, the two individual defendants who it alleges contacted the title agency. It seeks this damage amount in connection with claims of slander of title , tortious interference with contract, tortious interference with business relationship, and tortious interference with prospective business or economic advantage.
In the recent dismissal motion, an attorney for Ripoll and Thompson argues that their statements about the property, as described in Holiday Industries’ lawsuit, cannot legally be the basis for any tort claims against them.
The motion claims among other things that Holiday Industries’ tort claims are barred by the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, a legal principle first enunciated by courts over 60 years ago. The doctrine, originally stemming from anti-trust litigation, is nowadays often invoked to shield from lawsuits some activities that are protected by a party’s First Amendment right to petition.
According to Middle Tennessee State University’s First Amendment Encyclopedia, “the modern trend in the lower courts is to treat the doctrine as a general principle of First Amendment law.” It notes that the doctrine is frequently used to defend against so-called “SLAPP suits” ”(Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation), in which frustrated land developers, whose plans have been blocked by local activists, file lawsuits against them based on claims such as unlawful interference with contract.
Under the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, the dismissal motion says, activities related to litigation, including pre-lawsuit demand letters or other communications, such as the alleged statements by the two defendants, cannot be the basis for legal claims against them.
The defendants are further protected by absolute and qualified privilege, according to the motion. Citing Ohio case law, it notes that “The doctrine of absolute privilege in a judicial proceeding asserts that a statement made during litigation-related activities is not actionable where the statement bears’some reasonable relation’to the matters at hand. ”
Since the statements allegedly made by the defendants, as related by Holiday Industries itself, are clearly “related and relevant to litigation,” they are protected by privilege, the motion contends.
As for the slander of title claim, the motion reports that the defendants cannot find any Ohio court decisions in which a slander of title claim has been based on anything other than a written, recorded document such as a mortgage, judgment lien, or sales agreement . Such a claim, the defendants maintain, also requires that the slanderous communication be made to a third party – not, as in this case, to the owner of the property or his agent.
Based on Holiday Industries’ own account of the defendants’ statements, the motion argues, all they said was that they believed believed That they and their neighbors had an interest in the property; they never directly asserted that they in fact have such an interest. The motion also states that the defendants recorded no documents and took no action other than talking on the phone.
“A simple expressed belief has never formed a basis for a slander of title claim,” the motion asserts. “Holiday Industries’ suggestion (that) mere expressions of belief, without anything else, can slander title is unsupported by Ohio law.”