By Doug McMurdo
Attorneys for former Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson have filed court documents asking the Utah Supreme Court to review a recent decision from the Utah Court of Appeals.
The odds are not in her favor. According to several legal sources, higher courts decline to accept 90 percent of such requests, known as a writ of certiorari.
Davidson, Tara Smelt and Tayo, Inc., filed defamation lawsuits against Chris Baird, Connie McMillan, online reporter Jim Stiles and the Canyon Country Zephyr. The women allege the Seventh District Court and then the Utah Court of Appeals erred when the lower courts ruled in favor of the defendants.
Davidson and Smelt accused the defendants of making defamatory comments following a controversial transaction at the city shortly after Davidson was hired in the spring of 2015, after she left the same position in Kemmerer, Wyoming.
Within a month of her hiring, Davidson directed the assistant manager at the time to hire a man named Niyo Pearson, whom Davidson knew from her time in Wyoming.
Pearson was a cyber security consultant who had reportedly found serious cyber threats in the City of Kemmerer – and subsequently found threats in the City of Moab, as well, when he was hired in May 2015.
Smelt also knew Davidson and Pearson in Kemmerer, and she was living with Davidson in Moab. Smelt and Pearson formed Tayo, Inc., in June 2015.
The writ in its statement of facts does not mention Pearson and Smelt had ties to Davidson in Wyoming.
The city hired Pearson to fortify its online network and did not bid out the work. Davidson disclosed her relationship with Pearson in June 2015, after Smelt and Pearson formed Tayo, Inc. One year later, following an independent auditor’s review of the contract with Pearson and Tayo, it was determined no laws or ethics were violated, according to the writ.
Davidson alleged McMillan, a Kemmerer resident, defamed her on social media, saying more than two dozen employees left their employment due to Davidson, as well as other comments she reportedly made over a period of several months.
She accused Baird of making false statements in letters to local newspapers and on social media alleging she violated the law and professional ethics, and she alleged Stiles and the Canyon Country Zephyr defamed her in a story that was ostensibly a deep dive into Davidson’s career as a public administrator.
Davidson was later terminated for unrelated reasons – she also filed a civil rights case against the city and former Mayor Dave Sakrison afterwards (see sidebar on following page) – and filed her lawsuit against Baird, McMillan, Stiles and the Zephyr in the fall of 2016. Five months later, on Valentine’s Day 2017, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
The judge determined the allegedly defamatory statements fell into one of three categories: They were true, they were matters of opinion, or they were “fair public comment.” On appeal, the higher court affirmed the district court’s decision, and it added that, “even if some of the statements at issue were false, plaintiffs were required but failed to show that defendants acted with ‘actual malice’ …” Davidson, the higher court agreed, was a public figure, and so were her co-plaintiffs.
The Utah Supreme Court has yet to take up the matter.