According to a Wendy Liberatore story published in the April 13 edition of the Times Union, ex-County Administrator Spencer Hellwig is suing nine Saratoga County Supervisors and the county. Among those named in the suit are Saratoga Springs Supervisors Matthew Veitch and Tara Gaston.
Ms. Liberatore writes:
Fired [JK: Technically he was not fired. His appointment was not renewed] in January after 33 years with the county, Hellwig claims in court papers filed in Albany County that the supervisors “made defamatory statements … which were published to a third party, which were in fact false statements.” The conduct of members of the board of supervisors, the filing continues, “was extreme and outrageous, and was done with an intent to cause or with disregard of a substantial probability of causing, severe emotional distress.”Times Union
Hellwig’s attorney, however, claims that the supervisors used the issue to “take control over county government and wreak operational havoc on the administrative staff.” And that Hellwig was used as the “fall guy” for the county’s pandemic pay problems.Times Union
The courts set a high bar for what constitutes the defamation of a “public figure.”
So first of all, is Spenser Hellwig a “public figure?”
The controlling precedent in the United States was set in 1964 by the United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which is considered a key decision in supporting the First Amendment and freedom of the press.
A fairly high threshold of public activity is necessary to elevate people to a public figure status. Typically, they must either be:
* a public figure, a public official or any other person pervasively involved in public affairs, or
* a limited purpose public figure, those who have “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” A “particularized determination” is required to decide whether a person is a limited purpose public figure, which can be variously interpreted:Wikipedia
Assuming Mr. Hellwig is a “public figure” what standard would then have to be met in a defamation suit?
In the context of defamation actions (libel and slander) as well as invasion of privacy, a public figure cannot succeed in a lawsuit on incorrect harmful statements in the United States unless there is proof that the writer or publisher acted with actual malice by knowing the falsity or by reckless disregard for the truth. The legal burden of proof in defamation actions is thus higher in the case of a public figure than in the case of an ordinary person.Wikipedia
I am not a lawyer but as a lay person this would seem a hard suit to prevail in.
Still, Mr. Hellwig is represented by attorney Michael Koenig with the law firm Hinkley Allen. Founded in 1906 this firm has offices across the United States. They are clearly a highly reputable law firm.