Settlement reached for sermon comments — $490,000 settlement

Settlement reached for sermon comments — $490,000 settlement

by: Virginia Lawyers Weekly
Posted: Feb 12, 2024

Type of action: Defamation

Injuries alleged: Injury to reputation; embarrassment, humiliation and mental suffering

Name of case: Reece v. Kelly, et al.

Court: Virginia Beach Circuit Court

Case no.: CL20-2711

Date resolved: 7/7/2023

Verdict or settlement: Settlement

Amount: $490,000

Attorney for plaintiff: Rhiannon Jordan, Chesapeake

Description of case: On April 19, 2023, Stephen Kelly gave a sermon, a portion of which was of and concerning Larry and Nell Reece, also pastors of a church. This sermon was published live to the congregation as well as streamed live on the Wave Church web page. This sermon was later posted to Facebook and other social media platforms. During this sermon Kelly accused the Reeces of making race-based threats and being told to leave Wave Church. The Reeces maintain that these allegations are entirely false. The settlement of this case was a result of compromise and not an admission of liability or responsibility.

Plaintiff’s counsel Rhiannon Jordan provided case information.

Judge hears defamation case by local organizer, labeled a hate group leader by Turpin campaign

by: Andy Fox
Posted: Oct 21, 2019 / 10:29 PM EDT / Updated: Oct 21, 2019 / 10:35 PM EDT

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — How far can you go in political commercials and direct mail to voters?

That played out in a Virginia Beach court case. A candidate for Virginia State Senate is accused in a defamation case for campaign advertising when she ran for the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017.

Delegate Cheryl Turpin (D-85th District) is finding herself a defendant in a defamation lawsuit 15 days before election day. She wasn’t in court, but her attorneys were.

At issue was a direct mail piece against her by then Delegate Rocky Holcomb, whom she beat. She is now running for State Senate, and Holcomb is running to get his old seat back after she beat him in 2017. One reason why Holcomb says he lost is that Turpin aligned him with someone she defined as a leader of a local hate group.

10 On Your Side’s interviewed Scott Presler before. In fact we were there on June 11, 2017, when he organized a rally at Mount Trashmore. You could hear him on a loudspeaker system talking about Muslims: “Act for America is not anti-Muslim. We are not radical Islam, and there’s a big difference,” he said to great applause.

At the time he was the local leader of Act for America, thought to be anti-Muslim. Cheryl Turpin’s campaign mailer stated he was the leader of a local hate group, which is an opinion, and opinions are protected by the First Amendment in political campaigns.  

Presler filed a defamation lawsuit against Delegate Turpin and her campaign manager Daniel McNamara.

“The First Amendment should protect speech, political speech for a public figure,” said their attorney Jeffrey Breit. “Clearly, he is a public figure. He is the activist for a group, he is the coordinator for this group.”

Presler says he is not a public figure. He was not the candidate. His lawyer Rhiannon Jordan did not want to comment, but she argued in court that Turpin’s First Amendment protection for the mail piece should not apply, and that Presler was maligned by Turpin’s statements that he had a joint rally with a known Neo-Nazi.

Jordan argued that is something that can be proven false. Along with that are other charges made by Turpin that Jordan says can be proven false and knowingly false, which is the test for defamation. They include: “some of their speakers were also participates in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville Virginia, Delegate Rocky Holcomb proudly campaigns with a local hate group leader, Presler is the leader of a local hate group, Presler coordinated a joint rally with a known neo-Nazi, Presler and his group have often worked with and invited neo-Nazs and white supremacists to speak at their rallies, like the rally held right here in our district in Mount Trashmore on June 10th.”  

Turpin’s legal team also points out Presler injected himself into the public arena by quotes as an official defending ACT. “Mr. Presler posted on Facebook videos endorsing Mr. Holcomb and supporting Mr. Holcomb,” says Turpin’s other attorney, Kevin Biniazan, “Those are the allegations, that he has been maligned, and that’s what it states in the complaint, but even given those allegations the judges ruled those allegations are not sufficient to address a prejudice in his profession or his ability to perform his job as a political activist, which is what he says he is … he has not been damaged.”

Judge Pamela Baskervill dismissed three of Presler’s four counts against Turpin, but has taken the fourth and most important, defamation, under advisement in part because of the issues above that can be proven true or false.

In politics, opinions are protected by the First Amendment, so to say that someone is a leader of a hate group is protected because it is an opinion. A hate group is an opinion. Some think it is a hate group, and some may not.

If it weren’t protected speech then every claim in a campaign could be questioned as defaming. “And as I told the judge that is a slippery slope,” Breit said.

Holcomb says he does not know Presler and only had the picture because as a candidate he takes pictures with supporters. Holcomb sent this statement:

“We believe in due process and the ability of the courts to remedy this. We are focused on our election in two weeks and talking to the voters of the 85th District about creating jobs, freezing college tuition, and lowering healthcare costs.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Original news story can be viewed here.

Virginia’s Largest Verdicts of 2014 – Bennett v. Shea – $1.2 Million

Bennett v. Shea – Legal malpractice
Newport News Circuit Court

Attorneys: Jeremiah A. Denton III, Rhiannon M. Jordan and Vivile R. Dietrich, Virginia Beach

Summary: A Newport News jury handed down a $1.2 million verdict to a woman who lost her rights to spousal support after her divorce attorney
failed to enter an appearance.

In 2008, the plaintiff’s husband sued her for divorce in Newport News Circuit Court. The plaintiff retained attorney Kevin P. Shea and his firm to defend the divorce case. When she retained the defendant attorney, she gave him a letter by her husband admitting adultery and cruelty and offering to give more than $1 million in support and equitable distribution to be paid out over her lifetime. Defendant failed to enter an appearance until after the final decree of divorce was entered and 21 days had elapsed. The divorce decree became final, irrevocable and unmodifiable.

Because of defendant’s negligent failure to enter an appearance and perform legal services in a competent manner, and because of his failure to bring this error to the court’s attention within the
21-day period after the entry of final decree, the plaintiff lost all eligibility and entitlement to spousal support for an undefined period, a lifetime of her former husband’s military pension, other equitable distribution and forgiveness of, and/or indemnity on, certain debts and obligations.

The jury awarded $1.2 million – the full amount plaintiff’s counsel requested – in closing argument.


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Virginia’s Largest Verdicts of 2012 – Walsh v. WAVY Broadcasting LLC – $1.2 Million

Walsh v. WAVY Broadcasting LLC, et al. – Defamation
U.S. District Court, Norfolk

Attorneys: Jeremiah A. Denton III, Rhiannon M. Jordan and Vivile R. Dietrich, Virginia Beach

Summary: Plaintiffs, a husband and wife who owned a special events rental company, brought a defamation suit against WAVY Broadcasting and its parent company. In 2010, the defendants had aired a broadcast that falsely stated or implied plaintiffs had accepted deposits for their services, knowing that they were about to close their business.

In fact, plaintiffs had merged their company with a competitor, who had agreed to honor existing deposits and contracts. Several former customers were confused about the merger and contacted the TV station. The station’s reporter interviewed the couple, who gave their side of the story, but the station edited much of the interview for the aired broadcast.

A Norfolk federal jury awarded $600,000 each to the husband and wife. The parties settled the case post-trial.


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Virginia’s Largest Verdicts of 2012 – Webb v. Virginian-Pilot Media Companies LLC – $3 Million

Webb v. Virginian-Pilot Media Companies LLC – Defamation
Chesapeake Circuit Court

Attorneys: Jeremiah A. Denton, Vivile R. Dietrich and Rhiannon M. Jordan, Virginia Beach

Summary: In December 2009, The Virginian-Pilot published a news article about a public school assistant principal and his son, a student in the same school system. Plaintiff alleged that the defendant newspaper falsely implied that the principal had improperly used his position to obtain preferential treatment for his son.

The article also linked the father to numerous unflattering statements about the son. These statements had previously yielded a $5 million jury verdict against the newspaper in favor of the son.

Last May, in a separate trial, a Chesapeake Circuit Court jury awarded $3 million to the father.

In August, Circuit Judge Randall D. Smith dismissed the verdict, finding that the plaintiff failed to show the article was published with actual malice. Plaintiff’s counsel has filed an appeal.

Download the article here

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