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Defamation suit filed by Graham city manager may be transferred to Forsyth County

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A Rural Hall town councilwoman who is being sued by Graham city manager Megan Garner has responded to Graham city manager Megan Garner’s lawsuit claiming that she was forced to quit her job and leave Rural Hall last year because of alleged libel and slander by Gordon.

Rural Hall council member Susan Gordon
Graham city manager Megan Garner during Graham city council meeting earlier this year.

Rural Hall town councilwoman Susan Gordon – the defendant in a defamation suit that Garner filed in Alamance County civil superior court in June – filed her response, as well as a motion requesting the case be transferred back to Forsyth County, in Alamance County superior court on Monday, August 15.

In her suit, Garner claims that Gordon made numerous “false and malicious statements” about her and, in particular, publicly slandered her, both personally and in her capacity as Rural Hall town manager, during a meeting of the Rural Hall Historical Society on June 13, 2021. Garner is seeking more than $25,000 in damages against Gordon under multiple alleged claims, including slander.

In her response, Gordon admits that she was a member of the Rural Hall town council “for a portion” of Garner’s tenure as Rural Hall town manager, from July 2017 until her abrupt resignation on October 21, 2021.  (Graham’s city council voted unanimously the following morning, on October 22, 2021, to hire Garner to replace former city manager Frankie Maness, who resigned earlier in the year to take a job as Montgomery County manager.)

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Gordon otherwise denies the substantive allegations outlined in Garner’s suit.

In her response, Gordon denies that she “made and published to multiple third parties numerous false and malicious claims against” Garner; that she said at a meeting of the Rural Hall Historical Society on June 13, 2021 that Garner had stolen money from the town; denies “as stated” that she said at the same historical society meeting that Garner “provided crappy spreadsheets to the town council which was a fabulous way to hide money”; and that she told the same group that Garner had been served with a summons “in connection with an affair with a married Forsyth County sheriff’s deputy.”

The Rural Hall town councilwoman acknowledges that an independent audit certified to the town council on November 8, 2021 that no money had gone missing from the town’s coffers.

For her defense, Gordon counters that the “alleged but denied defamatory statements were an expression of opinion, not fact” and that Garner’s claims are barred by the “doctrine of unclean hands” and by “absolute and/or qualified privilege,” and that Garner’s defamation claims should be dismissed, as a result.

Gordon also asserts that, if it is determined that she, in fact, had made false statements to third parties concerning Garner, which she denies having made, she did so “in good faith and with the reasonable belief that they were true.”

Gordon also contends that Garner has failed to make her claims for slander and libel with “required specificity,” and that the claims for slander and libel should be dismissed as result.

Garner’s suit alleges that Gordon slandered her by making false and malicious statements about her at the Rural Hall Historical Society meeting on June 13, 2021.  Garner also contends that she had to defend herself against these allegations when contacted by “local news media about a ‘missing'” $1.5 million; and “the news media published articles regarding the alleged missing money which was also embarrassing and humiliating,” her complaint alleges.  Garner contends that because Gordon’s statements about Garner “were slanderous per se, malice and damages are presumed and [Garner] need not prove injury.”

For her part, Gordon is asking that no damages be awarded to Garner; she is also seeking recovery of her attorney’s fees and any other costs for her defense.

 

Basis for change of venue

Gordon is also asking for the lawsuit to be transferred to Forsyth County superior court because, under state law, “an action against a public officer for an action done by virtue of her office” must be tried in the jurisdiction in which the defendant holds public office, according to her motion for a venue change.  Gordon also argues that it would be improper to use taxpayer funds to pay the expenses for any government officials to travel to Alamance County to testify in the case.

The Rural Hall town councilwoman also notes that the alleged cause of action originated in Rural Hall and was supposedly witnessed by citizens of Rural Hall.  “Most witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the allegations of the complaint reside in Forsyth County,” Gordon contends in her motion, adding that “at least 10 of its anticipated witnesses reside in or near Rural Hall.”

Potential witnesses include current Rural Hall town officials who would be required to travel from Forsyth County to Alamance County for the trial, the costs for which would be funded by taxpayer money and could ultimately become costly, Gordon argues in her motion for a venue change.  She notes that the only witness in the case who resides in Alamance County is the plaintiff, Garner.

Gordon’s response and motion for a change of venue were filed in Alamance County civil superior court Monday morning.  She is also seeking dismissal of the suit in its entirety, based on her belief that Garner has failed to state a claim on which relief may be granted under North Carolina’s Rules of Civil Procedure.

Gordon is being represented by the Hartzog Law Group in Raleigh.

Garner is being represented for her suit against Gordon by Valerie L. Bateman and June K. Allison of the New South Law Firm; their offices are in Carrboro and Charlotte, respectively.

Garner filed the lawsuit in Alamance County civil superior court on June 10.

However, there had been no filings in the case until this week.

Gordon neither filed a response nor a motion for an extension of the deadline to respond within the customary 30-day window for doing so.  Instead, a note included in the court file stated, “out of co. shff,” indicating that a summons would need to be served by a Forsyth County sheriff’s deputy (where Gordon resides), not by an Alamance County deputy.

The Forsyth County sheriff’s office received a summons on July 1 and served Gordon with it on July 13, according to the latest filings.

In her motion for change of venue, Gordon acknowledges the statutory requirement for filing a response within 30 days, but counters that she has complied with it, as 30 days had not passed since she was served with the summons and complaint.

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