Case against Facebook commenters moves to state court

Gaston Gazette, North Carolina/September 23, 2020

By Rebecca Sitzes

A local business owner recently filed a motion to dismiss a federal defamation lawsuit, but is now pursuing the case on the state level.

Samuel Pires, part-owner of Lotz International, which operates Everything Must Go on East Marion Street in Shelby, filed a new complaint in Cleveland County courts last week.

Under federal law, Pires must not reside in the same state as the defendants in the case. Since Pires lives in North Carolina as do the defendants, the case was unable to be heard in federal court.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the controversial church, Word of Faith Fellowship, located in Spindale.

Pires is a member of Word of Faith and states in the complaint that people have been attacking his store with defamatory and violent comments on social media as a result of his membership.

He alleges in the lawsuit that online comments have harmed his reputation and caused financial damage through lost revenue and productivity.

Butch Maltby, church member and community liaison for the store, has stepped in as the spokesperson in the case and said a Facebook page called Citizens Against Corruption and Abuse was created that has targeted church members, incited violence and spread untrue rumors. The Facebook page is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit. When people began commenting on social media that the plaintiff was forcing sick employees to come to work at the store and they were spreading COVID-19 in the community, Maltby said they decided to take legal action.

Maltby contends the statements are untrue.

Everything Must Go, which is a discount bin store, has remained open throughout the course of pandemic. Maltby said they sell grocery items which means they fall within the guidelines of an essential business. He said the store always had dry goods mixed in with bin items, but when the virus began causing businesses to temporarily close, they purchased massive loads of groceries and offered them at low prices.

DeShay Oliver, deputy health director with the Cleveland County Public Health Center, said the department has not identified any cases related to Everything Must Go as part of its contact tracing.

Maltby said now that the case is local, it will now move more quickly and involve more parties.

In the prior complaint, five defendants were listed. Maltby said he expects more to be added, and they intend to subpoena Facebook.

In the prior complaint, the defendants consisted of Nancy Burnette, Shana Muse, Melissa McCleave, Kari Braswell and “John Doe” aka Citizens Against Corruption and Abuse.

Maltby said the discovery process will allow them to uncover a network of people attacking the business and church through social media and ultimately, said he wants Citizens Against Corruption and Abuse to be dismantled.

Now that the case has been filed in Cleveland County, all defendants will have to be served again.

Maltby said they initially had trouble serving the complaint and claimed Burnette was evading service.

Burnette said she was served on Sept. 4, and she was not evading service but that they deliberately attempted to serve her at an address where she had briefly lived nearly 20 years ago, instead of her current address where she has lived for many years.

“They know where I live,” she said. “They’re just being dramatic.”

Burnette questioned why the lawsuit was filed in federal court in the first place and said she called the federal clerk and asked if she had to file an answer based on the fact they didn’t have jurisdiction.

“I didn’t have to file a motion to dismiss because of the jurisdiction issue,” she said.

Burnette, who said she did not create Citizens Against Corruption and Abuse but contributes research and information to the page, said her dealings with the church go back to when she served as a Guardian Ad Litem, an advocacy program for children in foster care. Her first dealings with the church occurred when a family with Word of Faith took in two foster children, and Burnette was assigned to their case.

She advocated for the removal of the children and has since been an outspoken critic of the church.

Burnette said she feels the lawsuit is an intimidation tactic, and she believes in freedom of speech.

“I should be able to say whatever I want to say as long as it’s the truth,” she said.

She said none of the statements she has made online are untrue, and she plans to file a motion to dismiss. 

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