Judge awards $4 million in social media defamation case
By Suzanne Mackey
News Star Reporter
District Judge Leah Edwards ruled in Garvin County District Court last week that videos and statements published on a Lindsay consulting firm’s Facebook page about a Pauls Valley City Councilman are defamatory, intentional, and malicious.
Edwards entered a $4 million judgment against Forum Consulting, LLC, which is owned by Joel Skip Mitchell. The judgment included $2 million in actual damages and $2 million dollars in punitive damages. Court documents entered by Edwards said, “It is necessary to award punitive damages in this case to punish the defendant and set an example to deter others from like conduct.”
The plaintiff in the case, Pauls Valley City Councilman Patrick Grimmett, filed the libel and slander lawsuit last July after Mitchell repeatedly posted videos to Forum Consulting’s Facebook page alleging Grimmett abused his current wife and former wife, had committed adultery, and had engaged in criminal conduct and would be serving time in prison.
“Patrick had tried to ignore it, hoping it would go away, but it wasn’t going away,” Grimmett’s attorney Brett Agee said. “One of his concerns was the number of times Mr. Mitchell has repeated his lies. No matter how outlandish it is, if it is repeated often enough, people will start believing it. And so that is why Patrick Grimmett decided to proceed with this defamation case.”
Agee said Mitchell has offered no proof to support his claims in court, publicly, or to Grimmett’s attorneys.
“The law is that when you make a defamatory statement you can assert as a defense the truth of the matter that you have asserted. So we essentially set forth the challenge to Mr. Mitchell to come forth with the truth of the matters to which he had asserted. And of course he did not do that,” Agee said. “He simply doesn’t have the evidence. If he had it, he would have presented it earlier. As part of our litigation we’ve served on him discovery requests, asking for his evidence, and he has ignored those and not responded—and not provided us with any proof outside of court.”
Mitchell made the statements in regular broadcasts on Forum Consulting’s Facebook page last year as he spearheaded efforts to secure enough citizen petitions to request a special audit of the City of Pauls Valley and circumstances surrounding the closure of Pauls Valley’s hospital in 2018.
While Mitchell said he holds great regard for Edwards, he disagrees with her ruling in this case.
“Judge Edwards is a fair judge. I’ve watched her in other cases, and I think she works very hard to be fair,” Mitchell said. “But I respectfully disagree with the court on this one.”
Mitchell said he still stands behind his statements about Grimmett.
“I do not recant any of the statements. It did exactly what I wanted it to do,” Mitchell said. “This is an attempt to make Mr. Grimmett look like the victim, when the real victims are the 133 hospital employees who still haven’t been paid.”
Mitchell, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit and still faces a determination regarding his personal liability in the case, said he has hired two attorneys who will be filing an appeal on Forum Consulting’s behalf, as well as a motion for a jury trial in the matter. He declined to identify the attorneys until they have a chance to enter the case formally in the courts.
He said he has not produced proof to support his statements because he has not had the opportunity to do so in court, and he will not release his proof publicly, on social media or elsewhere, out of concern for the repercussions it might have on Grimmett’s family.
Mitchell said he agrees Edward’s decision sends a strong message regarding there being legal consequences for what is posted on social media.
“That’s part of the message, but I think part of the message is that she didn’t rule against me personally,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell is slated to be back in court later this month to provide information on Forum Consulting’s assets in relation to the judgment.