- Resources at Citizen Media Law Project
- Key People in the Lawsuit
- Key Court Dates and Documents
- Expanded Reference List of Court Documents
- Analysis of Allegations and Some Initial Interpretation
- Observations, Conclusions, Interpretations, Inconsistencies
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~ Resources at Citizen Media Law Project ~
The best source for finding the six most relevant legal documents for this case, all in one place, is the Citizen Media Law Project. This website is hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the Project focuses specifically on “legal resources for citizen media.” The defamation case of Beaverton Grace Bible Church v. Smith deals directly with “citizen journalism” through blogging and online comments. Thus, the case fits into the topic of freedom of speech issues, especially since it included the application of an anti-SLAPP motion. The case’s profile page includes detailed sections on:
- Summary of the type of lawsuit and its disposition.
- Parties involved, including legal counsel.
- Description of the key events, in narrative form, and related links to media reports and press releases.
- Details of the media sources of plaintiffs and defendants, and relevant media law topics (which is the focus of the website).
- Court Information & Documents, including where the lawsuit was filed, the case number, and links to PDFs for six of the most relevant documents.
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~ Key People in the Lawsuit ~
- Charles O’Neal – an individual plaintiff
- Beaverton Grace Bible Church – an Oregon non-profit
- Roger Hennagin, Lake Oswego, OR – original attorney for the plaintiffs
- Jason Alexander, Sussman Shank, LLP; Portland, OR – concluding attorney. (Plaintiffs changed counsel apparently sometime between the first court date of May 21 and the second court date of July 13.)
- Erik S. Syverson, Miller Barondess, LLP; Los Angeles, CA – concluding attorney, Pro Hac Vice, which literally means “for this turn.” In other words, he was an out-of-state attorney who was admitted to practice law in Oregon for this one case only.
- Julie Anne Smith – mother of Hannah Smith
- Hannah Smith – daughter of Steve and Julie Anne Smith
- Jason Stephens – son of Kathy Stephens
- Kathy Stephens – mother of Jason Stephens
- Meaghan Varela
- Herbert G. Grey, Beaverton, OR – attorney for defendants Kathy Stephens and Jason Stephens, who were dismissed from the lawsuit in May 2012
- Linda K. Williams, Portland, OR – attorney for defendants Julie Anne Smith, Hannah Smith, and Meaghan Varela
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~ Key Court Dates and Documents ~
Note: This list focuses on six major documents. Many of these were the primary document in a packet of items submitted on those particular dates. Also typically included in packets were memorandums, motions, sworn declarations, and various exhibits and appendices. This section is followed by a more comprehensive reference list of court documents, organized by milestones in the lawsuit process.
February 22, 2012. Plaintiffs file their original Complaint (8 pages). It contains 17 allegations of defamation against four defendants: Julie Anne Smith (11 allegations), Jason Stephens (2 allegations), Hannah Smith (1 allegation), and Kathy Stephens (3 allegations).
April 26, 2012. Plaintiffs file their Amended Complaint (10 pages). It contains 27 allegations of defamation against five defendants – the same four as in the original Complaint, plus Meaghan Varela (4 allegations). With Julie Anne Smith, 4 of the original allegations were dropped, and 10 added for her additional blog posts since the lawsuit was filed, for a final total of 17.
May 01, 2012. Defendants file Memo in Support of Special Motions to Strike regarding Amended Complaint (24 pages).
May 14, 2012. Plaintiffs file Opposition to Motion to Strike (13 pages). After filing their Opposition document, the plaintiffs dropped from the list of defendants Jason Stephens (on May 16) and Kathy Stephens (on or about May 29).
May 21, 2012. First court date.
July 13, 2012. Second and final court date. The session lasts approximately two and a half hours.
July 23, 2012. Judge Jim L. Fun issues his Order on Motion to Dismiss (8 pages). Page 8 of the Order states the core reason for his decision: “The court finds that the defendant’s internet postings on plaintiff’s website and defendant Julie Ann [sic] Smith’s blog site, were made in a public forum and concern an issue of public interest. The court further finds that plaintiff has not met the burden of presenting substantial evidence the defendant’s statements are defamatory.”
The Order also includes the court costs and attorneys’ fees of $16,750 for the two defendants dropped from the lawsuit, Kathy Stephens and Jason Stephens. The plaintiffs cannot contest any part of this total, because they dropped these two defendants from the case in the middle of the lawsuit; this amount is final.
August 20, 2012. Statements of court costs and attorneys’ fees for the remaining three defendants – Julie Anne Smith, Hannah Smith, and Meaghan Varela – are submitted to Judge Fun by their attorney, Linda Williams. The amount is nearly $44,375 ($2,768.52 court costs and $41,604 attorneys’ fees). The plaintiffs have two weeks from this date to file objections to any costs that are not automatically recoverable according to Oregon state law.
By statute, the defendants’ filing fee of $505 and a “prevailing party” fee of $550 generally cannot be contested. The only question in this specific case is whether the three remaining defendants each receive a prevailing party fee of $550, or must all three together share in one fee of $550. (The two dropped defendants were awarded one $550 fee to share.) Other costs, and attorney’s hours spent or hourly rate, can be contested.
Typically, the losing parties contest some aspect of the amount. In those cases, the court would set a hearing on the amounts. The remaining fees are part of the judge’s final judgment decree, which dismisses the lawsuit claims and awards court costs and attorneys’ fees. In this case, however, the plaintiffs did not file any objections, including to the individual prevailing party fee request.
September 8, 2012. Court-mandated payment of $16,750 from plaintiffs was received for court costs and attorneys’ fees for Kathy and Jason Stephens. (This was the date the three defendants represented by Linda Williams were informed that payment was received for the other two defendants represented by Herbert Grey.)
December 4, 2012. Judge Jim L. Fun signs the final judgment Decree to dismiss the lawsuit and award court costs and attorneys’ fees for the remaining three defendants. The plaintiffs have 30 days from the date of the final decree to file an appeal. They can appeal any part of this judgment.
January 3, 2013. This is the official deadline for an appeal/payment response from the plaintiffs. They have the option to appeal the judge’s final decree. However, the judgment is enforceable after this date. If the plaintiffs appeal, they must post a bond guaranteeing payment with interest if they lose the appeal. If they do not appeal, they must pay, or face debt collection actions.
January 9, 2013. No appeal or payment is received from the plaintiffs by the defendants’ attorney for nearly a week after the January 3, 2013 deadline. So, on January 9, Linda Williams issues “10-Day Notice and Demand” letters requiring payment. They are sent by mail with return receipt to Charles O’Neal as an individual judgment debtor in the case; and to Barbara Gilgan and Dale Weaver, two individuals listed as officers for Beaverton Grace Bible Church on their Corporation Division website as an Oregon non-profit debtor. Signed receipts are received back from the two church corporation representatives. However, none is received from Mr. O’Neal. This necessitates further action.
January 17, 2013. Because Mr. O’Neal and BGBC filed as co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and they lost their case, both were liable for the entire judgment award. This means that if one is not able to pay anything, the other is responsible to pay the whole amount. Therefore, it was necessary to ensure that all debtor parties received notice that the award payment was overdue. So, On January 17, 2013, Linda Williams sends a process server to deliver the letter in person to Mr. O’Neal.
January 19, 2013. However, on January 19, Linda Williams receives checks from Beaverton Grace Bible Church covering the full amounts due for court costs and attorneys’ fees for the final three defendants – Julie Anne Smith, Hannah Smith, and Meaghan Varela. Each check also includes 46 days of interest, accrued from the date of the judgment (December 4, 2012). Since the judgment award is now paid in full, serving the notice on Mr. O’Neal is no longer necessary, and the process server is withdrawn.
As the court-mandated payments are received on January 19, 2013 – the 10th day after the “10-Day Notice and Demand” letters were sent – this ends the dealings with the aftermath of Judge Fun’s decision on Beaverton Grace Bible Church v. Smith.
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~ Expanded Reference List of Court Documents ~
I have compiled the following list of court documents from multiple sources. It is incomplete, but is the most comprehensive list I know of. It is organized according to milestone points in the overall lawsuit process. The six documents that have links represent the core “library” for tracking the flow and argument of the entire case of Beaverton Grace Bible Church v. Smith. Items that do not list date filed or number of pages typically are documents I have not had access to. The rest I have read as resources for my attempts to analyze and understand this defamation lawsuit.
1. Plaintiffs’ Original Complaint of February 2012
- Complaint (often referred to in this Archive as the “original Complaint”). (8 pages; February 22, 2012). Note: The linked version on the Citizen Media Law Project website is incorrectly labeled as being filed 02-02-2012 when it should be 02-22-2012 instead; that is just a typo.
2. Defendants’ Responses of April 2012 to the Plaintiffs’ Original Complaint
- Special Motion to Strike [Stephens]
- Special Motions to Strike [Smiths] (April 26, 2012)
- Memo in Support of Special Motions to Strike [Smiths] (54 pages, April 26, 2012). (This document gives extensive explanation about the anti-SLAPP/Motions to Strike, and related case law.)
- Appendix to Defendants’ Memorandum in Support
- Declaration of Linda K. Williams (attorney for defendants Julie Anne Smith, Hannah Smith, and Meaghan Varela)
- Declaration of Julie Anne Smith (7 pages; April __, 2012)
- Declaration of Meaghan Varela (3 pages; April 12, 2012). Note: Meaghan Varela was not yet a defendant in this lawsuit at this point – and not until the filing of the plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint on April 26, 2012.
- Declaration of DM
- Declaration of R.W. Roussel
3. Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint of April 26, 2012
- Amended Complaint (10 pages; April 26, 2012)
4. Defendants’ Responses of May and June 2012 to the Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint
- Special Motions to Strike regarding Amended Complaint [Stephens] (??)
- Special Motions to Strike [Smiths]. (6 pages; May 1, 2012)
- Memo in Support of Special Motions to Strike regarding Amended Complaint [Smiths] Filed 05-01-2012, 24 pages.
- Motions to Strike [Varela]. (8 pages; May 17, 2012)
- Defendant’s Memorandum in Support of Special Motions [Varela] (55 pages; June 13, 2012)
- Appendix to Memorandum in Support [Varela] (June 13, 2012)
5. Plaintiffs’ Counter-responses of May 2012 to the Defendants’ Responses on the Amended Complaint
- ?? Plaintiffs’ Response Memorandum. Filed May 1, 2012. (Referred to in May 17 Motions to Strike [Varela] document from the defense.)
- Opposition to Motion to Strike. (13 pages, May 14, 2012). Note: This document includes 8 pages on the plaintiffs’ case for opposition, and 5 pages of a declaration from a BGBC member, DH.
- Motion to Strike Portions of Declaration of Linda Williams (1 page; May 14, 2012/Roger Hennagin)
- Declaration of Charles O’Neal (6 pages; May 14, 2012)
- Exhibits to the Declaration of Charles O’Neal (31 pages) – emails to Mr. O’Neal, Exhibits A through H. (Emails from Meaghan Varela – A, B, C. Emails from Tim Varela – D, E. Email from Mike Hanafee – F. “Hate Emails” – G, H.)
- Declaration of Tonya Marie O’Neal (3 pages; May 13, 2012) – wife of Charles O’Neal
- Declaration of Charlie O’Neal (2 pages; May 14, 2012) – son of the O’Neals
- Declaration of Jordanna O’Neal (3 pages; May 14, 2012) – daughter of the O’Neals
- Declaration of Dale Weaver (3 pages; May 12, 2012) – elder at BGBC
- Declaration of Derek Hanson (2 pages; May 13, 2012) – music leader; children’s Wednesday night teacher at BGBC
- Declaration of Lori Nodurft (2 pages; May 13, 2012) – member at BGBC
6. Judge’s July 2012 Decision on Motion to Dismiss
- Judge Jim L. Fun’s Order on Motion to Dismiss. (8 pages, July 23, 2012)
7. Related to Filing in August 2012 of “Prevailing Parties” Award of Court Costs
- Cost Bill and Statement for Attorneys Fees of Meaghan Varela (4 pages; August 20, 2012)
- Cost Bill and Statement for Attorneys Fees of Julie Anne Smith and Hannah Smith (4 pages; August 20, 2012)
- Motion and Memorandum in Support of Awards of Stated Costs, Disbursements and Attorney Fees Filed by Julie Anne Smith, Hannah Smith and Meaghan Varela (26 pages; August 20, 2012)
- Declaration of Linda K. Williams in Support of Motion for Attorney Fees, Costs, and Disbursements (August 20, 2012)
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~ Analysis of Allegations and Some Initial Interpretation ~
Overview of Allegations in the Original Complaint
The original Complaint was filed by the plaintiffs on February 22, 2012. Section 9 of this document included a total of 17 allegations against four defendants. The table below gives the list of defendants, tally of allegations lodged against each, and the sub-point letters for easier reference of which allegations apply to which defendants. See the Complaint document for a short description of each allegation.
I will skip analysis on this list of allegations, as the Amended Complaint which was filed about two months later contains the final list allegations. It removed 4 of the 17 allegations from the original Complaint, and then added 14 more, along with one additional defendant. That list is more useful for getting into the heart of what was actually addressed in the courtroom starting a month after the Amended Complaint was filed.
Overview of Allegations in the Amended Complaint
The plaintiffs’ final Amended Complaint document was filed on April 26, 2012. Section 10 of this document contains 27 allegations of defamation against five defendants. These include the original four defendants – Julie Anne Smith, Jason Stephens, Hannah Smith, and Kathy Stephens – plus the newly added Meaghan Varela.
With defendant Julie Anne Smith, 4 allegations from the original Complaint were dropped, and 10 more were added for additional blog posts since the lawsuit was filed, for a total of 17. (Ms. Smith activated her BGBCSurvivors.blogspot.com blog on February 24, 2012, two days after the case was filed and five days before she was served on March 1 with legal papers about the defamation lawsuit.) A few weeks after the Amended Complaint was filed, the plaintiffs dropped Jason Stephens (on May 16) and Kathy Stephens (on or about May 29) as defendants.
Do-It-Yourself Analysis of Allegations in the Amended Complaint
If you’re interested in studying this case a bit more on your own instead of relying on my analysis and opinions, you can try the exercise below. I’ve created a table with blanks for the allegations so you can fill in the source of an allegation, plus what you see as the essential issue in each allegation. Here are some questions to help you fill in your chart:
- Is the source an online “message” posted by a defendant, or a “blog post” or “blog comment”?
- Is the substance of a particular allegation mostly about accusing Mr. O’Neal and his church of “spiritual abuse,” or about allowing a “sexual offender” interaction with children without letting their parents know of his presence, or about something else?
- What phrases stand out and why?
Once you make a chart like this, you can start tallying things up. That will give you some basic “content analysis” information to use in drawing some tentative conclusions, as you also reflect on what significance might be in them. For instance, you can use questions like these:
- What category of allegation is the most dominant in the entire list?
- Is it more about online posts, or their own blog?
- Were there changes in emphasis over time?
- How do change points relate with other events that happened?
- What might be important in these dates, or details?
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~ Interpretations, Inconsistencies ~
Note: At some point, to understand the Beaverton Grace Bible Church v. Smith court case, you absolutely have to read the court documents available on the Citizen Media Law Project. All six of them. Probably several times. If you do not do this, you can expect to make the same kinds of mistakes that have shown up from many online commenters from both Church and community.
Here are some of the most common problems I have read and heard:
- You could misinterpret the defendants’ anti-SLAPP motion as being “legal maneuvering” designed to stop the court from learning “the truth.” However, it is a legitimate legal response to a defamation case. As of January 2013, according to the Public Participation Project, 29 states currently have some type of anti-SLAPP law to protect people from potentially frivolous lawsuits. This is now a routine procedure, not some extraordinary legal contortionist trick.
- You could rely on everyday definitions and common sense tests for terms like “slander” and “libel” and “provable fact” and “absolute malice,” and find yourself confused or angry when the court fails to use them; but the judge and lawyers in this case have technical definitions and very specific tests that they are bound by law to use.
- You could miss the difference between which legal principles were possibly applicable to this case, and which were required to be applied.
- You could get miss the important points of what distinguishes something of “public interest” from something that is merely “newsworthy.” The distinction is critically important for defamation/freedom of speech issues.
These represent key legal issues on which the decision for this lawsuit turned. If we aren’t clear on them, we could be getting upset at or convinced by or passionate about all the wrong things! So – for all of us who are legal laypeople – we need to slow down. Read and listen carefully. Observe. Consider. Ask questions. Find ways to interpret our observations in a larger context. We need a context that is LEGAL and LOGICAL in nature, not a context that is just common sense and emotional.
Restated, we need a context that uses the actual, legal ground rules which governed the entire defamation lawsuit process – from the moment it was filed in February 2012 until Judge Jim L. Fun dismissed the plaintiffs’ case in July 2012 for failure to show substantial evidence of actionable items where the defendants knowingly lied and did so with reckless disregard. If we are not evaluating the facts of the case by these same ground rules, we will not understand why it turned out the way it did. And we may say or do foolish things as a result. It would be wiser to read through the court documents, chart out the particulars of the allegations, and start considering WHAT was brought up and HOW things were laid out, compared with the legal requirements for determining defamation.
Some Observations, Conclusions, and Opinions
Learning and applying the unavoidable ground rules takes some work. It’s an exercise in problem solving. So, I did a created a lot of notes and charts and such along the way. For instance, I put a lot of observations about facts into previous sections of the Archive. Here are a few conclusions I draw from them about what could be the plaintiffs’ state of mind, what they value – but not necessarily why they made the decisions they did. See what you think about these opinions …
- Julie Anne Smith was the most important defendant to them. She had the most allegations of any defendant, with 17 out of 27.
- Kathy Stephens and Jason Stephens were not as important to the plaintiffs. Instead of continuing to pursue them, they voluntarily dropped them from the lawsuit.
- Hannah Smith was an important-enough defendant to the plaintiffs to keep pursuing her, even though she had only one allegation listed against her.
- Meaghan Varela was not so important to their case initially, or they would have included her in the original Complaint instead of adding her nearly two months later. What allegations they did add with her were based in online comments she posted in March and April, after the lawsuit’s original Complaint had been filed and immediately before filing of the Amended Complaint.
- The key issues about Julie Anne Smith were related to her online posting of messages and, later, her blogging about what could broadly be called “spiritual abuse.” These accounted for the main topic in 13 out of 17 allegations. The other four allegations dealt more with her posting messages online about the alleged sex offender in the congregation. For some reason, there are no allegations dealing with her blogging anything about the alleged sex offender.
What do you think?
- Overall, were those “accurate” observations?
- Were those “reasonable” conclusions?
- If there are some items that were “off,” what were they? Why do you think they went amiss? And, specifically, how/where did I go wrong in my observations and/or conclusions?
These are the kinds of questions and thinking processes that are needed to absorb the details of this case and think through them critically.
I made other observations and drew conclusions, based on my long-time study of the events, court dates and documents, and media responses from the unsuccessful plaintiffs, the successful defendants, various news agencies, and blogs both Christian and community. Some of these observations and tentative conclusions were quite startling to me. I’ll include them along the way when they seem relevant.
In the meantime, my main point is this: As we go into the extended Narrative Account section of the Archive, I hope you’ll keep in mind the differences between facts, opinions, conclusions, and assumptions – and what is possibly applicable and what must be applied in terms of legal procedures in court. It will help you work toward a more clear and comprehensive grasp of what happened in this defamation lawsuit case, so you can reflect on what significance Beaverton Grace Bible Church v. Smith may hold for the future.
Note: If this notion of “Thinking Legally, Thinking Logically” has caught your attention, you may want to read more that I’ve written on the subject. You’ll find an article with that title on Archive Page 05 Analysis/Commentary Pieces – Legal, Historical, Other.
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How to comment: You can post comments directly on page 06 Impact of the Case and Significance for the Future, and on page 07 Public Commentary on the Archive. Please read the commenting guidelines and post your insights on the relevant page(s) of 06 and/or 07. The comment function on all other Archive pages will remained closed.