MPA files motion to dismiss Blythewood’s counterclaim

BLYTHEWOOD – According to recently filed court documents, Town leaders are using litigation to punish their former marketing firm for requesting public records through the FOIA.

MPA Strategies has asked a circuit judge to grant summary judgment to dismiss eight causes of action, including fraud, civil conspiracy, negligence/gross negligence, and another misconduct.

The causes of action were lumped into a countersuit Blythewood filed in response to an MPA complaint accusing the Town of violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act by not furnishing documents relating to a canceled marketing contract between the two entities.

“This is supposed to be a straightforward FOIA case,” MPA’s attorney stated in a recent filing. “The Defendant Town of Blythewood has filed eight frivolous counterclaims/third-party claims against the Plaintiff and the Counter Defendants in order to obfuscate the FOIA process and punish the Plaintiff for using it.” the motion states.

“The crux of the Defendant’s claims is an allegation that Ms. Hunter lied about structuring State and Frink Foundation as a 501(c)(3) in order to secure a contract with the Town of Blythewood to do marketing and grant writing services,” the motion states.

The motion goes on to state that, “State and Frink Foundation was formed as a nonprofit under 26 U.S.C. § 501(c)(6). Ashley Hunter acknowledges that in early discussions leading up to the parties’ contract she mistakenly conflated “501(c)(3)” as synonymous with the term “nonprofit” overall—as many people do.  However, the distinction in type of nonprofit status made zero difference to whether or not she could perform services for the Defendant Town of Blythewood. That means the representation by Plaintiff, upon which the Defendant Town of Blythewood premises all of their counterclaims, is absolutely immaterial,” the motion claims.

“Good evidence of this is that neither the Town’s Request for Proposal, nor Plaintiff’s contract with the Town required State and Frink Foundation to be a 501(c)(3) (or any sort of nonprofit for that matter). …the other entities who responded to the same request for bid, the Blythewood Chamber of Commerce and NP Strategy, did not have 501(c)(3) status either. The Blythewood Chamber is a nonprofit, presumably organized under 501(c)(6), and NP Strategy is an LLC,” the motion states.

“The most damning evidence,” the motion states, “though, is that S.C. Code Ann.§ 6-4-10(3) makes no distinction about the sort of nonprofit required to receive allocations of accommodations tax money …it made no difference, whether State and Frink Foundation was a “501(c)(3)”, “501(c)(6)”, or “501(c)(anything else).”

No rulings on the motion had been made as of press time.

MPA’s 2021 FOIA request sought documents and recordings from Mayor Bryan Franklin related to MPA, Hunter, and State and Frink Foundation, MPA’s nonprofit entity. The town missed a May 24, 2021 deadline to provide the records, which still hadn’t been provided when MPA filed suit two months later, according to court records.

MPA’s attorney said in the latest filing that the Defendants Town of Blythewood have slow-walked efforts to depose witnesses.

“These ‘counterclaims’ and delay tactics to avoid depositions have resulted in this simple FOIA case stretching out for nearly two years,” MPA’s motion states. “The Counter Defendants are entitled to judgment on these claims as a matter of law and this case should hasten to a quick resolution by bench trial on Plaintiff’s FOIA claim.”

A trial date has not been set.

On Monday, the presiding judge granted a continuance based on ongoing discovery disputes, a new attorney joining the case and an attorney expecting the birth of his child.

Some defamation claims dismissed

In related matters, some but not all claims have been dismissed against a newspaper editor sued in a separate lawsuit over news stories written about MPA.

MPA has agreed to dismiss claims of defamation and negligence against Tonya Page, editor of the Country Chronicle, formerly published by Camden Media Company, according to a May 2 filing.

The remaining two claims of civil conspiracy and tortious interference with contract against Page remain active, documents state.

All other claims against other co-defendants remain active.

Filed in January, the suit names the Town of Blythewood, Mayor Franklin, Camden Media Company, and the Country Chronicle as co-defendants. The litigation asserts various claims of defamation, tortious interference with contract, civil conspiracy, negligence and breach of contract.

According to the lawsuit, Franklin falsely stated on several occasions that Hunter and Councilman Donald Brock started a romantic relationship, which led to MPA landing its marketing contract with the Town.

“The remarks by Franklin were knowingly false and made in reckless disregard for the truth,” the original suit said. “The remarks by Franklin were made with malice based on his political feud with Brock, disappointment and bruised ego based on his preference for the Chamber of Commerce over MPA Strategies not carrying the weight of counsel, and his retaliatory disdain for the Plaintiffs because Hunter took appropriate legal action to protect herself,” the suit stated.

The remaining claims of civil conspiracy and tortious interference against Page assert that she and Franklin engaged in actions with the intent of causing the early termination of MPA’s contract with the Town, according to the suit.

Page and Franklin also “conspired together to intentionally harm the Plaintiff by engaging in tortious and criminal conduct” to defame Hunter and interfere in her business dealings, the complaint continues.

The Town and Mayor Franklin each have filed motions to dismiss on technical grounds in lieu of formal responses, court filings show.

Camden Media and Page have been served with the suit, but neither have filed formal responses in Richland County Circuit Court.

Contact us: (803) 767-5711 | P.O. Box 675, Blythewood, SC 29016 | [email protected]