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Court of Appeals rules in favor of The Messenger and Grady EMC?critics

In a 33-page opinion issued on Friday, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the decision of a lower court in a lawsuit filed against The Cairo Messenger and others by the former head of Grady EMC over statements published in the newspaper during the summer of 2016.
Retired, longtime Grady EMC president and general manager Thomas A. (Tommy) Rosser Sr., filed suit against the newspaper and vocal critics of Grady EMC, including Gordon Clyatt, Ronald Sellars, C. Seaborn Roddenbery, and Jerome J. Ellis, in October 2016.
On May 1, 2017, an order was filed in Grady County Superior Court by Superior Court Senior Judge Loring A. Gray Jr., granting the defendants’ motion to strike, which was filed late last year, and dismissed Rosser’s complaint. Judge Gray issued the order April 25, 2017, but it was not filed with the Grady County Clerk of Superior Court’s office until May 1, 2017.
Rosser, who was represented by Valdosta attorney William P. Langdale III, appealed Judge Gray’s decision.
In the opinion issued by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Judges Brian M. Rickman and Stephen S. Goss concurred in the judgment of Presiding Judge Christopher J. McFadden in ruling in favor of the newspaper and the four critics of Grady EMC.
In a separate, but related, lawsuit Grady EMC sued William Gordon Clyatt seeking to permanently enjoin Clyatt from publicly disclosing certain records obtained in an earlier, settled litigation. Clyatt appealed the trial court’s order granting injunctive relief.
Presiding Judge McFadden wrote, “Because there is no evidence that Grady EMC would suffer an imminent and irreparable injury absent the permanent injunction, we reverse the grant of injunctive relief.”
Rosser’s attorney argued that the anti-SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) statute did not apply, however the Court of Appeals disagreed.
The higher court ruled that the revised statute, which became law July 1, 2016, applied even though some of the allegedly defamatory statements were made prior to that date.
The revised statute expanded the scope of protected speech to include any conduct related to “a matter of public concern in furtherance of the right to petition, not just to speech connected to an official proceeding.”
The revision also “replaced the plaintiffs’ complaint verification requirement and provided a right of direct appeal from the grant or denial of a motion to dismiss.”
Rosser also claimed that the alleged defamatory statements were not made in connection with an issue of pubic interest or concern.
The court of appeals rejected Rosser’s argument that because the earlier lawsuit had been settled the matter was no longer a public concern. The court noted that the settlement of a previous lawsuit between Take Back and Grady EMC required a committee to issue a report on many of the issues Clyatt had questioned and by September 2016. “In other words, some of the issues raised in the lawsuit had not been resolved,” Judge McFadden wrote in the unanimous opinion.
The court of appeals also ruled that Rosser is a public figure for purposes of this controversy.
Rosser, according to the court, did not point to evidence showing that any of the allegedly defamatory statements were made with “knowledge of their falsity or in reckless disregard for the truth.”
The newspaper was originally represented by attorney W. Brian Mallow and most recently by Robert J. Middleton Jr., both of Hall Booth Smith PC in Albany. The other defendants were represented by Cairo attorneys Gabe Ridley and Thomas L. Lehman.
Middleton said he was surprised at the number of pages in the opinion issued last week and noted he thought the opinion was correct and well written.

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