Warren County judge tosses Sycamore defamation suit that cost taxpayers $15,000 in attorney fees

Trustee Tom Weidman: 'This is bad law'
Posted at 3:26 PM, Sep 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-02 19:59:50-04

CINCINNATI — A Warren County judge has dismissed a defamation lawsuit that Sycamore Township Trustee Tom Weidman filed against developer Christopher Hildebrant in February, saying its claims are barred by Ohio’s one-year statute of limitations.

The dismissal comes after taxpayers shelled out $15,000 to respond to the lawsuit.

In the lawsuit, Weidman alleged Hildebrant created a “fake email” in 2011 to falsely accuse Weidman of soliciting bribes. He also claimed he wasn’t aware of the email until state investigators asked him about it in November 2020. Weidman’s lawsuit was filed less than one year after he became aware of the email.

But Warren County Common Pleas Judge Donald Oda ruled the one-year time limit applies to the date the email was first published. That was December 20, 2011, when Hildebrant and Weidman agree the email was shared with a third party.

“The plaintiff argues … the statute of limitation does not begin to run until November 18, 2020, when plaintiff discovered the alleged defamatory email and suffered the injury,” Judge Oda wrote. “The Court does not find this argument to be persuasive."

Hildebrant's attorney said Judge Oda got it right. Weidman said he will appeal the ruling because it is based on legal precedent that’s over 100 years old.

"This case allows a confidential publication of a defamatory statement to start the running of the statute of limitations," Weidman said. "Thus, I can be defamed in confidence, and then have my case barred ... this is bad law."

Weidman said Judge Oda applied the precedent correctly, but he wants an appeals court to change the precedent.

“Many other states agree with my position," he said. "We intend to appeal the decision in an effort to bring Ohio into line with more modern reasoning on this subject.”

The legal controversy erupted in April, when Hildebrant’s company sued Weidman in Hamilton County. In that lawsuit, Morelia GroupDE LLC alleged Weidman retaliated against the company in 2019 because Hildebrant refused to pay Weidman bribes between 2009 and 2012.

As the WCPO 9 I-Team researched that case, it learned of Weidman’s defamation case in Warren County and an investigation by the Ohio Auditor’s office into Hildebrant’s bribery allegations in 2020. The auditor’s investigation ended after Hildebrant refused to answer questions about the 2011 email, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The I-Team subsequently learned from four sources that Hildebrant is “Cooperating Witness 2” in the City Hall corruption case against former Councilman Jeff Pastor.

"Mr. Hildebrant is pleased that the Warren County Court of Common Pleas correctly ruled that Mr. Weidman's frivolous defamation claims are barred," said Chad Ziepfel, a Taft law firm partner who represents Hildebrant. "The suit filed by Morelia Group against Mr. Weidman will proceed."

The next step in the Hamilton County case is an October 4 hearing before Common Pleas Judge Terry Nestor on Weidman’s motion to dismiss.

In the meantime, Sycamore Township has spent about $15,000 responding to subpoenas and record requests because of the case, said Trustee Tom James.

“So far, it has cost us about $12,000 in attorneys fees,” James said. “It also cost us another $2,500 to $3,000 in IT fees and administrative fees to handle the searches we had to do of township records.”

James and Trustee Jim LaBarbara voted to hire an outside law firm from Dayton to handle its response to Weidman’s defamation case because Weidman’s attorney subpoenaed the township’s law director as a witness.

It’s one of the many quirks of the case that caused the defamation case to be costly. Another involves records sought by Weidman that Weidman already had.

“For whatever reason, he uses his personal email for public business,” James said. “So, we had to ask him to produce things that we could produce back to him.”

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