Lawyers have raised questions in recently-filed court documents about whether U.S. Congressman Ralph Norman was acting in an official capacity, and if he knew statements were false, when he posted them on Facebook after a controversial arrest last summer in Rock Hill.
Travis Price has filed a defamation lawsuit against the city of Rock Hill and Norman in connection with statements made after the incident. The arrest of Price and his brother, who are Black, prompted race-related protests and called into question the police department’s use of force.
Norman’s lawyers have denied the congressman knew any statements were false, and said Norman relied on information from the Rock Hill police.
Also, a federal magistrate judge has agreed with Norman’s lawyers and recommended that the federal government should replace Norman as a defendant in the lawsuit. Norman’s lawyers argue that the U.S. Congressman was acting in his official capacity when he posted comments on Facebook. If Norman is replaced in the lawsuit by the U.S. government, that would dismiss him from the case because of rules against suing the federal government.
However, a higher judge will have the final say on that.
Travis Price’s lawyers want Norman to remain a defendant. Price filed the lawsuit after prosecutors said Price was wrongly arrested by Rock Hill Police Department officers in a June 2021 incident.
A video of the arrest was posted on Facebook and went viral.
How and why were statements made?
Price’s lawyers, Justin Bamberg, Christy Fargnoli and Samuel Clawson Jr. claim in court filings made late last month that Norman should remain a defendant because Norman knew the posts he made were false.
The lawyers also question whether Norman’s posts were part of his job as a congressman.
“The Court has determined that the correct inquiry on this issue is the type of act, which the Court characterizes as a Congressman speaking to his constituents about a matter of public concern,” the lawyers wrote. “Plaintiff (Travis Price) would respectfully assert that the key inquiry is not the type of act, e.g., defamatory statements, but rather, how the statements were made and why the statements were made. This is the only way to adequately determine whether Defendant Norman was, in fact, in the course and scope of his employment when he made the defamatory statements.”
The lawyers pointed to the divisive impact government leaders have when they make false claims to the public.
“A majority of the country believes that this is due in large part to verifiably false statements which were knowingly made by public officials at the highest levels of government,” the filing states. “Knowingly spreading falsehoods to the public is poisonous to a democracy and is no way a legitimate government purpose. Plaintiff (Travis Price) alleges that Defendant Norman knowingly made false allegations about him, particularly as to the second subject social media post. If this is true, Defendant Norman cannot accurately be said to have made this post in the course and scope of his employment, is not entitled to sovereign immunity, and is not entitled to dismissal of the defamation claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act.”
Norman’s lawyers dispute allegations
Norman’s lawyers have long denied the congressman knew any statements were false. They say Norman was acting in his capacity to inform the public as a congressman, court documents show.
“Congressman Norman relied on publicly available information disseminated by the City police department and at the time of sharing had no reason to believe that any of that information was false,” court documents filed by Norman’s lawyers in September 2021 stated. “It is clear from the face of his public statement that the Congressman was providing what he believed to be an accurate description of the events that occurred in his district, rather than with any ill will towards Mr. Price.”
In a court filing late Wednesday afternoon, Norman’s lawyers said the claims by Price’s lawyers should be rejected by a judge.
“Plaintiff (Travis Price) does not object to the Magistrate Judge’s conclusion that Representative Norman’s social media posts were about a matter of public concern that resulted in ‘substantial public backlash’ and ‘protests’ ” Norman’s lawyers wrote. “Thus, under settled law, Representative Norman acted within the scope of his office, even if his comments were defamatory.”
Norman’s lawyers also said in the filing Wednesday that Price’s lawyers are asking the court to ignore established and settled case law over a dispute about public policy.
“Plaintiff’s request that this Court ignore settled law for public policy reasons is without merit, and the Court should reject it,” Norman’s lawyers wrote. “Plaintiff’s Objection cites no case law in support of his argument that the determination of whether the Congressman’s relevant actions were taken within the scope of employment should turn on how and why the statements were made.”
Police statement, then Norman posts
The Rock Hill Police Department issued a public statement on June 23, 2021, the night of the arrests, that stated Travis Price was at fault. There were other police statements at a news conference days later that did not clear Travis Price.
Price’s lawyers say those statements were false.
Norman made Facebook posts June 24, 2021. He also posted a statement on July 15, 2021, after prosecutors, at a July 8, 2021 press conference, cleared Price of charges that he hindered police.
Norman’s posts were shared and commented on thousands of times. The June 24 post said in part: “Umm, I’m sorry, but you don’t get to take swings at officers… You don’t get to be non-compliant with their lawful orders. And you don’t get the luxury of resisting or evading arrest.”
The lawsuit alleges the posts defamed Travis Price with that post and another on July 15.
The post also states Norman’s support of police.
The July 15 posting from Norman remains on his official congressional Facebook page. It has had thousands of comments and views and shares.
Seeking more information
The information put out by police in late June 2021 was later found to be false, Price’s lawyers say in court documents.
Jonathan Moreno, a Rock Hill Police Department officer involved in Price’s arrest, was fired in early July 2021. And on July 8, 2021 he was charged with assault and battery against Price.
Police body camera videos showed Travis Price did nothing wrong, prosecutors said.
Moreno was acquitted in a January trial. Norman attended Moreno’s trial in York County magistrate court.
Moreno now is a Republican candidate for York County Council in the November election. Norman contributed $1,000 to Moreno’s campaign on March 10, 2022, according to public filings with the S.C. Ethics Commission.
Norman, R-S.C., is an incumbent and Rock Hill native running for re-election in South Carolina’s 5th District. The district covers 14 counties including York County.
Price’s lawyers say in court documents that they want information, through what is called discovery, from Norman on three issues:
- The nature of Norman’s relationship and interactions with Moreno.
- Norman’s motivation for making the defamatory statements.
- Norman’s knowledge of the falsity of the information contained in statements, to include when and how he learned that information contained in the statements.
In Wednesday’s filing, Norman’s lawyers said a judge should reject that request for discovery because Price has no legal basis for getting discovery materials.
What happens next?
The higher presiding federal judge in the South Carolina federal lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Terry Wooten, has not yet ruled on the lower magistrate judge’s recommendation that Norman be dismissed from the lawsuit.
No date has been set for trial.
The part of Price’s federal lawsuit against the city of Rock Hill alleging civil rights violations, gross negligence and conspiracy also remains pending.