Former city manager threatens possible litigation over recent comments on social media sites
by Molly Marcello
The Times-Independent
Apr 13, 2017 | 2905 views | 0 0 comments | 150 150 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Two people recently received letters from an attorney for former Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson threatening legal action in connection with social media posts they made regarding Davidson, her roommate Tara Smelt and Smelt’s company Tayo, Inc. Attorney Gregory Stevens said the letters, which asked for either the removal or correction of the social media posts, were “an attempt to avoid litigation” with the individuals, one of whom is Jennifer Sadoff, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Moab Regional Hospital.

Sadoff made the issue public on the “Citizens for Transparency in Local Government” Facebook page on March 23, after receiving a letter from Stevens alleging that she made “demonstrably false” statements regarding Davidson, Smelt, and Tayo, Inc.

“I will not be silenced by threat of a lawsuit,” Sadoff wrote in a March 23 “Citizens for Transparency” post, which also included a copy of Stevens’ letter.

Sadoff did remove the comments from the page after receiving Stevens’ letter but she told The Times-Independent that she will repost those comments once her lawyers can clarify they were published as her personal opinion.

“My legal counsel, Clyde and Snow, ... have advised that there is no basis for a legal action against me related to Mr. Stevens' allegations. I decline to comply with the demands of Mr. Stevens’ clients. Their position is contrary to law and appears to be an improper attempt to restrict my right to express my opinions on matters of public concern,” Sadoff wrote in an April 4 email to The Times-Independent. “I am thoughtful in forming my opinions and I care a great deal about our community. On this matter, which involves our tax dollars and how they are being used, I shared my opinion publicly. My statements were made in my individual capacity as a longtime resident, taxpayer and concerned citizen of Moab.”’

Another individual — Janelle Johnson — commented on Sadoff’s posting of the letter saying she received a similar letter from Stevens several weeks earlier and had removed her Facebook posts “as they requested.”

Johnson did not respond to requests for comment from The Times-Independent.

Stevens’ letter to Sadoff, dated March 21, alleged that she worked to “sabotage” Davidson through statements on Facebook that Davidson made “payments” as the city manager to Smelt’s company, Tayo, Inc. and has a “track record” in other cities regarding litigation and settlements.

Stevens also alleged that Sadoff attempted to undermine Davidson’s working relationship with the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) by making complaints to UDOT regarding new traffic signals in town.

“In light of your position as Chief Executive Officer of the Moab Regional Hospital, the public sees you in a position of responsibility and trust,” Stevens wrote. “My clients are concerned that you are abusing your status in that position as a way to support your friends in the City. Your words have consequences and, hopefully, you will reconsider making false statements that affect other people’s lives.”

In a response to Stevens, Sadoff’s attorneys, Matthew Steward and Shannon Zollinger, refuted those claims, saying there is no proof of malicious intent in Sadoff’s statements, which they maintain are protected expressions of opinion. They also called the assertion that Sadoff complained to UDOT about Davidson “absolutely false.”

“ ... Your assertion that Ms. Sadoff is somehow ‘abusing’ her status as Chief Executive Officer of Moab Regional Hospital is not well taken. Ms. Sadoff’s statements pertaining to your clients were made in her individual capacity as a longtime resident, taxpayer and concerned citizen of Moab,” Steward and Zollinger wrote. “Ms. Davidson has chosen to respond to these concerns — shared by other members of the community — by harassing these individuals with threatening letters, and in one instance, waging litigation that was summarily dismissed.”

If a lawsuit is filed against Sadoff, Steward and Zollinger argued, it would be subject to “immediate dismissal” on similar grounds as the litigation Davidson, Smelt, and Tayo, Inc. brought in a defamation lawsuit in 7th District Court last year.

In that lawsuit, Davidson and Smelt alleged Moab residents Chris Baird, Annie Tueller Payne and Janet Buckingham, as well as Connie McMillan of Kemmerer, Wyoming, and former Moab resident Jim Stiles, publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr online news blog, had defamed their character and inflicted intentional emotional distress, as well as interfering with the economic relationships of Smelt and Tayo, Inc.

Seventh District Judge Lyle Anderson ultimately dismissed the claims against all defendants. In a Feb. 14 hearing, Anderson said statements made by Baird, McMillan, and Stiles “are not only the kind of public comment that is allowed by the law but which we must permit in this society if we are to have a free society...”

The Payne and Buckingham portion of that lawsuit, which was dismissed in November, was appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, but the appeal was dismissed after a private settlement was reached. Stevens and the lawyers for Payne and Buckingham have declined to comment on the terms of that settlement.

In March, Stevens filed an appeal with the Utah Supreme Court in the case against Baird, McMillan and Stiles. That court sent the case to the Utah Court of Appeals; a trial date has not yet been set.

Davidson has also filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Moab city regarding the city’s decision to fire her last year. Her employment contract was terminated Sept. 30, 2016 “without cause” by a 3-1 vote of the city council.

Davidson is seeking $2 million in damages from the city and triple the amount of damages against Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison. That lawsuit alleges that Sakrison and the Moab City Council acted with “reckless or callous indifference” to Davidson’s federally protected rights, and claims Davidson was terminated in retaliation for being a whistleblower about misconduct within the Moab Police Department.

City officials have described those charges as “unsubstantiated” and “baseless,” and say they are confident the city will prevail in court.

That case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Dee Benson, and a trial date has not yet been set.

Regarding Sadoff, Stevens told The Times-Independent that Davidson and Smelt decline to comment and consider their communications on this matter to be “private.”

He said he sent the letters in an attempt to avoid litigation.

“The purpose of a letter of that sort is to try to avoid litigation while addressing my client’s concerns,” Stevens said. “It is something that, during oral argument on the motion involving Ms. Payne and Ms. Buckingham, their attorney complained that we did not do. So, for individuals to whom we sent letters, the purpose was to try to resolve the issue amicably.”

Sadoff’s lawyers have warned they will take “swift legal action” if Davidson and Smelt move forward with litigation.

“Please assure Ms. Davidson that any additional vexatious actions by her or your other clients against Ms. Sadoff will be met with swift legal action from our firm for which your clients will have considerable financial exposure,” Steward and Zollinger wrote in their response to Stevens' letter.

Stevens said he believes it is “unfortunate” that Sadoff decided to make the matter public.

“Generally, I think that, when matters involving litigation or potential litigation are addressed in the press, people say things that would not otherwise be admissible in a hearing or trial,” Stevens said. “Also, frequently, matters involving litigation or potential litigation are not reported accurately.”

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