Judge considers whether to allow plaintiffs in Belfast 8 civil suit to voluntarily have case dismissed; defendants oppose the motion
BELFAST — A judge is currently considering whether or not to allow the voluntary dismissal of a civil suit against eight area residents, who maintain they want their day in court.
Attorney Christopher MacLean, who represents several of the eight citizens named in the suit, filed an Opposition to the Plaintiffs’ Motion to Dismiss, which was received by the court Aug. 24. In it, details of why the defendants, who have been dubbed the Belfast 8, object to allowing the case to be dismissed without going to trial are stated.
The Defendants in the civil suit of R.M. Woodford and her daughter, April Walker, include City Councilors Mike Hurley and Neil Harness, as well as six other area residents.
The suit was filed in Waldo County Unified Court May 2021 and alleges that those named participated in posting disparaging attacks on Woodford and Walker. The alleged posts include making accusations that the two had turned the historic James P. Whitehouse, which they own, into a brothel.
All of the named Defendants are active participants in a Belfast-themed social media group, where the alleged posts were claimed to have appeared.
The Defendants have denied the accusations from the start of the suit, and have claimed that the evidence submitted to the court, which include copies of the alleged posts, were created by the Plaintiffs, and not authentic social media posts.
Woodford and Walker filed a motion to dismiss their initial complaint in mid-August, seeking dismissal, “without prejudice and without an award of costs or attorney fees,” according to the motion.
While the decision to allow the Plaintiffs to voluntarily dismiss claims is within the discretion of the trial court, “in determining whether to grant voluntary dismissal, the court should consider whether the party has presented a proper explanation for its desire to dismiss, whether a dismissal would result in a waste of judicial time and effort; whether a dismissal would prejudice the defendant; and whether the dismissal was designed to avoid adverse judgment,” according to the Defendants’ opposition to the Plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss filed by Attorney MacLean.
The document further states that despite early attempts by the Defendants to get the case against them dismissed, stating they never posted any of the alleged material, and which they maintain is fabricated, the request for dismissal was denied.
While the Plaintiffs have testified under oath that the alleged posts are authentic despite the images submitted as evidence all lacking the details featured in a typical post on the social media page.
The Plaintiffs have also failed to designate any expert, and have never made any attempt to contact the social media company where the posts were allegedly made, according to Attorney MacLean. The Defendants assert that this is because the Plaintiffs are aware the posts were never actually made.
The Defendants also mention in their objection that they have incurred significant legal fees, litigation expenses, and expert costs deafening the claims against them. The group has also, “suffered untold embarrassment, humiliation, and anguish arising out of a highly publicized lawsuit in which they have been falsely accused of posting obscene and crude language online, which they never did,” the documents reads.
The trial for the suit has been set for Oct. 6-11, and the Defendants “categorically object to any voluntary dismissal of Plaintiff’s claims that would leave unadjudicated the merits of these false allegations and shield the Plaintiffs from any liability for litigation costs and other claims,” according to MacLean.
It is also noted in the motion that the Plaintiffs have not provided an explanation concerning their attempt at voluntary dismissal. McLean asserts it can only be assumed that the intent of the motion to dismiss is to avoid an adverse judgment.
The court received the Plaintiffs’ Reply to Defendants’ Opposition to Plaintiffs’ Motion to Dismiss Aug. 29. According to the reply, the “Plaintiffs’ Reply to Defendants’ Opposition can be best summarized by the Maine Supreme Court: “The right of the Plaintiff to voluntarily dismiss an action without prejudice exists at any time before commencement of the trial of the action. The trial is commenced when the plaintiff makes an opening statement,” a precedent set during a 1988 trial.
Lawyers for the Plaintiffs summarized the three main objections to dismissal made by the Defendants, which include (i) granting the motion would be a waste of judicial time and effort, (ii) granting the motion would be prejudicial to the Defendants as they are entitled to an adjudication and judgment on the merits of the Plaintiffs’ complaint, and (iii) that the Plaintiffs have not provided adequate reasons for requesting voluntary dismissal.
The Plaintiffs’ lawyer, Seth Russell, of Zerillo Law Firm, listed responses to the three main points of objection made by the Defendants in their motion to oppose. Attorney Russell argues, that the:
“Defendants’ arguments rely on the misapplication of an Eighth Circuit decision, which outlines the facts the Court should consider when ruling on a motion to voluntarily dismiss. The Defendants provide no other legal authority to support their arguments.
“Defendants’ Opposition also makes significant and meritless conjectures regarding the implications of the procedural history of this action.
“Defendants' unfounded beliefs and unsupported arguments fail to provide any legal argument that the Motion should not be granted.”
The document states that it is for these reasons, and the arguments made within the response, that the Court should grant the motion for dismissal.
The Plaintiffs argued that the Defendants’ opposition relied solely on the misreading of U.S. Bank Trust N.A. v. Evest Lending, Inc. 2021 Me. and inappropriate application of the Eighth Circuit’s consideration for voluntary dismissal without prejudice to this action.
Russell also wrote that judicial time and effort are not grounds for denial, and Plaintiffs are allowed voluntary dismissal at any point prior to the start of the respective trial.
Russell further claimed that granting the motion to dismiss will protect the Defendants’ right to adjudication and judgment. The Plaintiffs argue that the Defendants’ due process argument is misapplied and without merit. It is stated in the Plaintiffs’ reply that: “The Motion (to dismiss) should be granted because the Defendants have had years to file any additional claims against the Plaintiffs, and dismissing this matter without prejudice will protect the Defendants’ rights. In the event that the Plaintiff’s bring a second complaint based on the same facts, the Defendants will still be able to bring any additional claims that they may have and be heard and present evidence at that trial.”
It is asserted that the Plaintiffs have no legal obligation to provide reasoning for a voluntary dismissal. They also state that the Defendants' assertions that the Plaintiffs could never establish a proper evidentiary foundation is a claim without merit. Plaintiffs’ lawyers point to the Defendants' failed attempt to, “seek a pretrial judgment that Exhibits (submitted) are fraudulent through their Motion to Dismiss, Motion for Summary Judgment, and Motion in Limine.
The fact that the Plaintiffs have not contacted the social media company has nothing to do with the merits of the evidence, but rather, knowledge that the company in question does not participate in civil litigation.
“Federal law does not allow private parties to obtain the content of communications,” Russell’s response stated, concerning messages, timeline posts, photos, etc.
Despite reportedly not being required to do so, the Plaintiffs decided to “clear the air,” regarding the reasons for their request for dismissal.
“Since the start of this litigation, the Plaintiffs’ family has been plagued with various health issues. These issues are significant and require the Plaintiffs’ to dedicate a significant amount of time and money to care and treat,” according to the court document. “Unfortunately, these health issues have only increased both in significance and in the number of persons affected. Most significantly, Plaintiff Rose Woodford’s health has taken a turn for the worse over the last couple of months. It is still not clear what is causing Rose’s decline, but her doctors believe that she may have suffered a number of strokes over the past year.”
The hardships have reportedly made it so that the Plaintiffs can no longer devote the time and money necessary to complete the litigation at hand. Attorney Russell said, “these health concerns are only part of a myriad of other unrelated matters that have caused the Plaintiffs’ to seek this voluntary dismissal.”
Erica Thoms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org