Alison Steinbach Arizona Republic
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Three former board members of a Gilbert homeowners association are suing residents for defamation, escalating ongoing tensions over the HOA board, free speech and harassment in the upscale neighborhood.
The lawsuit names 20 Val Vista Lakes residents for “defamatory, harassing, and otherwise violative conduct” against three former board leaders, according to the complaint filed in Maricopa County Superior Court.
The lawsuit also included 13 unnamed spouses and up to 15 not-yet-identified potential defendants.
The legal action marks an escalation of a year of turmoil at the 900-acre neighborhood near Greenfield and Baseline roads.
Three former presidents of the HOA community board, Marcianne Johnson, Melissa Wilson Scovel and Cheryl McCoy, filed the lawsuit in late August.
Johnson and Scovel won reelection to the board in November 2019 but were recalled by voters in June. McCoy’s husband currently serves on the board, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint states that Johnson and Scovel were recalled through a “hate and disinformation campaign” and that residents engaged in “unlawful conduct that quite reasonably served to terrorize” the three former board members.
Residents launched the recall effort to remove Johnson and Scovel from the board after about 10 residents received threatening legal letters in January because of their social media speech surrounding the board election.
The HOA’s attorney in January threatened to fine residents as much as $250 per day over their social media comments. The board later walked back that threat, saying it would not pursue the fines but warned against negative online posts about the neighborhood or board.
Fast forward a few months: The two board members viewed as behind those letters were voted out of office. And after another few months, those ex-board members are suing those who spoke out against them.
Lawsuit claims defamation
The complaint states that a number of the defendants — referred to as “overlords” of the recall campaign — launched an effort called SaveVVL, that along with social media platforms, became a “breeding ground for vitriol, hate speech, religious persecution and outright lies designed to injure” Johnson, Scovel and McCoy.
The three claim that a continuous theme of the attacks against them was criticism for their association with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even though one is not a member, according to the lawsuit.
“Defendants engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct in making false statements against Plaintiffs that held them out for public rebuke; attacking them for their actual or perceived affiliations with a religious organization; threatening or encouraging violence; and alleging they committed criminal activities,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit quotes and describes specific social media posts that the former board members deemed defamatory, harassing or false. These include comments claiming that they hid board business from residents, engaged in voter fraud at the HOA election, damaged home values, acted in proxy with the LDS Church, sought personal gain through the board, racked up legal costs for the community and violated residents’ First Amendment rights.
Defendants made such statements intentionally and recklessly, according to the lawsuit, causing “severe emotional distress.”
And the “patently false and threatening attacks” did not abate after the recall, per the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims defamation, false invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and property rights violations. The plaintiffs have asked for a jury trial and payment from the defendants at a cost to be determined.
Their attorney, Bradley Jardine, declined to comment for this article. The plaintiffs could not immediately be reached. A court date has not yet been set.
Lawsuit is meant to intimidate, residents say
The handful of residents who have filed legal responses so far deny the claims.
“To best understand the parties involved, one should watch the blockbuster movie, ‘Mean Girls,'” one attorney’s filing states. “While many times art imitates life, this seems to be the situation where life imitates art.”
The attorney goes on to assert that, like in “Mean Girls,” rumors spread through the community. And like in the movie, the reason for the rumors is the desire for those in power to stay in power, leading to a lawsuit meant to send a warning to the community and silence anybody who disagrees with them, according to the document.
“If everything mean said during the election, recall, and recall election were litigated, there would never be peace in the Val Vista Lakes Community,” the document states.
One response states that the lawsuit is “frivolous and was filed solely for harassment purposes” to silence community members.
Statements made about the three women were true or were opinion and hyperbole and were not made with malice or recklessness, according to responses filed by several defendants.
The topics being discussed on social media concerned public matters and public figures, which warrants protection under the law, according to the defendants.
Ashley Nardecchia, who is named in the lawsuit, helped run the recall campaign and said she faced harassment during and after that effort. The lawsuit was the “final nail in the coffin,” she said — she and her family just sold and moved out of their home in Val Vista Lakes, where they had lived for about five years.
Steven Nielsen, another defendant, is a former board member who most recently served as president for 2018 and half of 2019. He had hoped the recall would start a “healing process” for the community he’s called home since 2009, but instead division has continued.
“We’ve gone through this very tumultuous and turbulent year filled with anger and frustration over the lack of transparency, fiscal accountability, excessive closed-door meetings and attempts to thwart public input or criticism of certain board member actions,” he told The Arizona Republic.
“This lawsuit is frivolous. It is meant to harm and retaliate against those that wanted to see a better functioning board.”
Nielsen said directors are elected and meant to represent the community, and as with any political office, voters have the right to criticize leadership and ask that they represent the community’s interests.
What’s next for Val Vista Lakes?
This is not the first time Val Vista Lakes has found itself in the spotlight for its HOA board.
Even before the social media controversies surrounding last year’s board election and the cease and desist letters sent in January, the self-advertised “water wonderland” had drawn attention for its HOA, including because of several previous lawsuits.
Val Vista Lakes has also raised eyebrows for the association’s nominating committee that has selected who would run for the board. Jon Dessaules, a Phoenix-based HOA attorney, previously told The Republic he typically met with people every year who were frustrated they were deemed not good for the community. He said that HOA practice was “highly unusual.”
The situation could change with a new slate of community leaders. Because of the recall, six of the seven board seats are up for election in November.
Fifteen residents are running, according to the HOA Facebook page, including four people named in the lawsuit.
Nielsen said he hopes the community elects qualified candidates who support better communication, respect for residents, open meetings, accountability and fiscal responsibility.
“There are good people that are running for the board, and I think if we get those elected on the board, we will see a new day,” he said.