A Nashville man whom Smyrna Town Court Clerk Brittany Stevens sued for defamation has fired back with motions to dismiss the case and is accusing her of attacking him for being a “citizen watchdog” even as he has withdrawn portions of his initial ethics complaint.
Nashville Attorney Daniel A. Horwitz filed the motions Monday on behalf of Tony Sees in the Fifth Circuit Court for Davidson County.
Sees asks to dismiss Stevens’ lawsuit for what he says is a failure to state a claim for which relief can be granted, as well as guidelines under the Tennessee Public Participation Act.
A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 15, Horwitz said. Either the Tennessee Ethics Commission or the Attorney General may intervene before that time. Horwitz filed a memo asking them to intervene because the case involves “a good-faith ethics complaint” and Brittany Stevens’ lawsuit “seeks to chill the free flow of information from citizens to their government.”
Stevens’ lawyer, Terry Fann of Murfreesboro, did not respond to a request for comment. Stevens is the sister of Smyrna lawyer Robert Stevens, a Rutherford County commissioner. Robert Stevens referred comments to Fann.
Brittany Stevens filed her $150,000 defamation lawsuit in September against Sees and “John Does,” whom she said accused her and her brother of allegedly breaking state campaign finance laws.
Brittany Stevens’ lawsuit was in response to Sees filing a complaint with the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics & Campaign Finance Ethics Commission accusing, among other things, the town court clerk of not disclosing as a source of income her alleged compensation from her brother’s Stevens & Stevens PLLC law firm on her 2019 statement of disclosure form. The complaint also says Robert Stevens certified the form as true, according to the lawsuit.
Robert Stevens posted on social media that the complaint was retaliation for his criticism of public officials, whom he did not name, according to a previous story in the Murfreesboro Post. His Facebook post called Sees’ complaint “false, malicious and defamatory. We believe that this individual was acting as a third party conduit for the actual author of the false complaint.”
The Stevenses have not identified who they believe to be the John Does. In an affidavit filed Monday, Sees denies the John Does exist and that he filed his ethics complaint without any help or encouragement from anyone.
Sees’ filings include exhibits purporting Brittany Stevens served at Sevens & Stevens while also working for the town, including an archived copy of the law firm’s website listing her as an attorney there, and an archive of her LinkedIn profile with an August date listing both jobs.
Sees is basing one of his motions to dismiss on the Tennessee Public Participation Act. The act is a new “anti-SLAPP” law, according to the website for Horwitz, a Nashville-based First Amendment and speech defense lawyer. SLAPP refers to “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” The act basically gives more protection to Tennessee citizens in speech-based lawsuits, such as defamation lawsuits. Anti-SLAPP laws are meant to stop “baseless lawsuits”, provide a way to punish people who file frivolous speech-based lawsuits and help defendants recover attorney’s fees and court costs.
Sees says, in his filings, that Stevens filed her lawsuit as a “defamation and ‘civil conspiracy’ action.” He says she is targeting a “citizen watchdog in retaliation for exercising his constitutionally protected right to file a good-faith ethics complaint regarding her with the Tennessee Ethics Commission.”
Horwitz said, "This nakedly retaliatory SLAPP-suit is little more than an attempt to intimidate concerned citizens from exercising their First Amendment right to file good-faith ethics complaints regarding elected officials. The lawsuit is both baseless and sanctionable, and there are only two possible outcomes regarding it: Either Clerk Stevens drops her frivolous claims and pays Mr. Sees a small amount of money, or Clerk Stevens continues pushing her frivolous claims and pays Mr. Sees a large amount of money after losing."
Even as Sees alleges that he is being targeted for questioning a public official, he has “effectively withdrawn and clarified” his ethics complaint, according to court records.
Sees wrote the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance an undated letter alleging harassment by Robert Stevens and asks that the bureau withdraw alleged violation No. 5 against Robert and Brittany Stevens, which had alleged that they violated state law by providing legal advice to private clients without disclosing it to the county commission.
“I now know that ‘consultation services,’ in this context, means specifically assisting someone with forming a contract with the municipal government,” Sees wrote. “I have no evidence to suggest that this transpired, and therefore I would like to withdraw that part of my complaint.”
Sees also wrote that he had alleged Brittany Stevens had concurrently practiced law while serving in her official town job, based on internet research. He said Robert Stevens contacted him saying she never represented a client while serving the town. “If this turns out to be true, then I would also like to withdraw the remainder of my complaint.”
Regarding the alleged harassment, Sees wrote to the bureau, “Since I have filed my complaint, Mr. Stevens has published my home address to a group of hundreds of his supporters on a local Facebook page, one of his colleagues has published an article insinuating that I work for a political opponent of his, I have received anonymous calls early in the morning, and someone has come to my office (the address of which is not on the complaint) looking for me. I do not want to be subject to any further retaliation by a powerful public official. I filed this complaint expecting it to be handled by the Ethics Commission, not by the court of public opinion.”
Sees also asked the bureau to either move his complaint forward or to remove it.
Editor's note: The spelling of Daniel Horwitz's name has been corrected. The Murfreesboro Post apologizes for the error.