August 28, 2012 —
Wayne Earley, the former zoning officer of the Borough of Honesdale, has filed a lawsuit against The Wayne Independent (TWI) newspaper for defamation of character and other matters.
Earley is being represented by Honesdale attorney Mark Zimmer, a former Wayne County district attorney. The suit asks for $150,000 in punitive damages and an additional $50,000 from GateHouse Media, the paper’s parent company, for allowing the paper to target individuals like Earley and recklessly defame them.
Earley was fired from his job by the Honesdale Borough Council on March 12. The borough, which began its investigation into Earley’s alleged lack of proper licenses, cut short its inquiries with the state and fired him based on the information that appeared in the newspaper. The motion to fire him was made by councilman Bob Jennings. The borough did not communicate any further with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (DLI), which is the department that regulates licensure of municipal employees and sets forth the steps to be followed in dismissing an inspector.
In the lawsuit filed in the Court of Common Pleas of the 22nd Judicial District, Earley claims that, if he lacked at any time the DLI certification for any aspect of his work, the reason for the lack of certification was the failure of Honesdale Borough to pay the licensing fee and submit the qualifications on his behalf.
“I will comment on this after I have read the text of the lawsuit,” said Michael O’Day, who was on the borough council and was its chairman during part of Earley’s employment. “We had our solicitor look into his certification at the time. DLI came in and found nothing wrong after the allegations of Mr. Jennings. There is nothing in his employment file that has a negative declaration on his work performance. I can only say that Earley’s employment history, which predates me, is excellent and has nothing detrimental towards him.”
The lawsuit claims that TWI began publishing online “false or misleading articles, and editorials or opinion pieces regarding him.”
Some of the accusations in the lawsuit are that the paper gave the impression that Earley was criminally responsible for either the disappearance of or mishandling of Texas Township records, which was never proven; that he was responsible for the criminal act of breaking into his own office, also not proven; that he had committed a crime under the Pennsylvania Construction Code, not proven; that he was a drain on taxpayer money and was costing the borough more money than it collected; and that he was not qualified to do inspections and was incompetent in his job.
The lawsuit also says that the newspaper at one point encouraged its readers to come forward with stories of “questionable dealings” with Earley but never published any.
It further says that the district attorney of Wayne County advised the borough that there was no basis for criminal charges in any of the incidents noted in the paper.
The lawsuit’s exposition ends with this statement: “Such course of conduct by The Wayne Independent was done with the knowledge that the publication and the impressions which they were fairly calculated to produce were false or were published without regard to whether the same was true or false.”
The four counts
The lawsuit listed four counts:
First, defamation of character—that the paper “falsely gave impressions that are defamatory and libelous by nature when taken as a whole;”
Second, putting Earley in a “false light” with the public and doing so “either with knowledge of or in reckless disregard as to the falsity of the publicized matters and the false light in which it placed the plaintiff;”
Third, that the conduct of TWI was “outrageous, intentional, malicious, willful and in blatant disregard for the rights of the plaintiff.”
The fourth count was aimed at the GateHouse Company, owner of TWI, “for not properly hiring and supervising its employees in order that they do not purposely and knowingly target individuals such as the plaintiff and defame him and place him in a false light before the public.”
GateHouse is a newspaper publisher, with headquarters in Perinton, NY, that publishes 97 dailies in 20 states and 198 weeklies.
The lawsuit claims that each of the four counts requires a redress of $50,000.
When contacted, the publisher of the paper, Michelle Hessling, said, “It’s the policy of our company not to comment when there is pending litigation.”