It appears Camden County officials were all wrong according to a summary judgement in a federal lawsuit between the heads of two county departments.

It appears Camden County officials were all wrong according to a summary judgement in a federal lawsuit between the heads of two county departments.

Camden County Clerk Rowland Todd sued Camden County commissioners and specifically Presiding Commissioner Greg Hasty in 2017, alleging his First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution had been violated by the defendants in retaliation for his criticism of the county human resources department and use of taxpayer money. The HR department operates under the umbrella of the county commission. Todd also alleged defamation specifically by Hasty.

Technically, Todd lost the case June 6 when the judge issued a summary judgement in favor of Hasty and associate commissioners Bev Thomas and Don Williams.

“We were always optimistic that we would prevail and are very pleased with the court’s ruling,” Hasty commented in a press release from the commission’s attorney in this case.

A federal judge ruled, though still open to appeal, that Todd did not prove that untrue statements made by Hasty were done with malicious intent or reckless disregard for the truth. According to the judge, though, Hasty did make untrue statements about Todd in the media.

The summary judgement from the Court describes a series of exchanges dating back to 2015, but which mostly intensely covered a few months in early 2017, between Todd and the commission.

For the sake of transparency, one of the arguments between Todd and the commission was over a Sunshine request made by the Lake Sun. It should be noted that all other references to media outlets in this case involved news agencies with no connection to the Lake Sun.

The Sunshine request made by the Lake Sun on January 19, 2017 was for “any/all payroll records and/or expenditures paid as a contractor to Brianna Christensen since January 1, 2016” and “any contract Camden County has entered into with Christensen in 2016 or thus far in 2017.”

The head of the HR department at the time had moved from full time county employee to part time employee in 2016 after taking a job with another company, and it was unclear in what capacity and when she was working for the county.

Commissioners believed Todd released the payroll record in violation of privacy laws. A later investigative report by the commission’s own law firm, cited by the summary judgement, did not show that the issuance violated any laws.

On the other hand, if Todd had denied the records request, he could have potentially violated the Sunshine Law.

Nevertheless, tensions between the clerk and commission continued to build.

At the heart of the lawsuit though was Hasty’s eventual accusation via another Lake area online news outlet that Todd stole records from the human resources department, with the commission even going so far as to pull and release surveillance footage of Todd getting the records from the HR office.

The summary judgement states, “Under the uncontroverted facts and with factual inferences drawn in Plaintiff’s [Todd’s] favor, Plaintiff has established that Defendant Hasty made statements to the media that Plaintiff had stolen payroll records, which is untrue.”

The judgement found that Todd could not be protected under the First Amendment for his statements as he could not be separated from his role as a public official. Public officials do not share the same rights as a regular citizen when speaking about issues related to their official capacity.

While Todd believed his First Amendment rights were violated, it was ironically the First Amendment that protected Hasty from defamation liability in his statements against Todd.

According to the judgement, this amendment protects false statements, “except the knowing or reckless falsehood.” According to the judgement, Hasty did not definitively know that the evidence did not support his claims that Todd had stolen records when he made the false statements to the other media outlet.

Todd was not able to provide evidence, according to the judgement, that Hasty’s false statements were made with knowledge that the statements were false and delivered anyway. There was no actual malice proven.

“All I can say is that I’m happy to put this matter behind us and eliminate distractions involving litigation,” commented Thomas in a press release from their attorney’s office.