Texarkana, Ark., city board Ward 2 Director Laney Harris recently filed civil suits in state and federal courts accusing his fellow board members, the city’s mayor, the city and two community volunteers of intentionally damaging his reputation.
At issue in both cases is the board’s censure of Harris and his removal from the city’s Advertising & Promotion Commission in June 2017. The censure lists three reasons for the formal reprimand; an unauthorized public tour of a city building, a confrontation with a volunteer at RailFest 2017, and a harassment complaint filed with Texarkana, Ark., police by a hearing impaired woman that led to Harris being banned from the woman’s property.
Harris filed suit against DeAnna O’Malley and James Zumwalt in Miller County circuit court June 7. Since then, Harris filed amended complaints on June 11, June 25 and July 9. O’Malley was the organizer of RailFest 2017 and Zumwalt was a volunteer at the festival.
Harris was allegedly seen furtively taking pictures at the event and was confronted about it by Zumwalt. Harris admits in the complaint that Zumwalt eventually apologized and offered his hand, which Harris refused to shake. Harris complains that despite this, Zumwalt and O’Malley apparently told city officials about the incident and it was one of the reasons listed for his public censure in June 2017.
“Fasting approach was a white male from the east of Broad Street and after he identify himself as James Zumwalt falsely stated that he observed the plaintiff hiding in bushes taking picturing (sic),” the complaint states.
Harris describes the confrontation as harassment and accuses Zumwalt of acting aggressively.
Harris seems to blame the volunteers for comments made about the confrontation by other people published in local media which described him as hiding in bushes or in trees while taking photos. Harris accuses the volunteers of conspiring with each other and with the city to damage his image, and places blame on them for his censure, loss of place on the A&P Commission and for his loss of a school board seat in an election last year.
Harris is asking the court to enter an order prohibiting O’Malley and Zumwalt from defaming or harassing him and for a “public apology.” Harris wants the defendants punished financially and is asking for punitive damages.
“Declare that the actions of the defendants and with the ‘City’ the defendants has violated the laws including but not limited to: Violations of Arkansas state laws, acting in concert/civil conspiracy, harassment, retaliation, civil right, slanderous and libel, humiliation, fraud & deceit and award compensatory and punitive damages against the defendant for violating to; and that the court grant plaintiff injunctive relief and compensatory damages against the defendants in assisting for violating his rights protectd by the civil right (sic),” the most recent amended complaint states.
Texarkana attorney Steve Harrelson filed a response asking the court to dismiss Harris’ complaint against O’Malley and Zumwalt.
“The defendants vigorously deny ever having made statements about the plaintiff ‘climbing any trees,'” Harrelson’s motion states.
Harrelson’s motion on behalf of the defendants goes on to point out that the truth is a defense to a defamation claim.
“Further, defendants assert that stating that the plaintiff was taking pictures from RailFest from the bushes does not satisfy the elements of the tort of defamation of character (or for any of the other causes of action enumerated in the complaint)…”
Since Harrelson filed his motion to dismiss, Harris has filed a motion asking the court to impose sanctions on Harrelson. Harris complains that the notice of service attached to Harrelson’s motion and brief indicate he sent copies of the documents to Harris through the U.S. mail, postage prepaid. Harris claims Harrelson lied because he received copies of the documents through certified mail, return receipt requested, and accuses Harrelson of trying to create a situation where Harris might miss a deadline with the court.
Harrelson responded to Harris’ motion for sanctions by stating that he sent Harris duplicate copies of the documents through both regular and certified mail to avoid any possible claim from Harris that he did not receive them. In a response to Harrelson’s response to the sanctions motion, Harris denies ever receiving the copies via regular mail.
Since the original complaint was filed, all three of the judges serving Miller County have bowed out of the case, citing conflict. The Arkansas Supreme Court appointed Circuit Judge Tom Cooper, who serves as a circuit judge in a neighboring jurisdiction, to handle the matter.
Harris then filed a motion requesting that Cooper withdraw from the case. Harris complains that he doesn’t believe he received fair treatment from Cooper in a different lawsuit he filed against the city over the towing of abandoned cars from private property. All of the motions are still pending and no hearings are currently scheduled in Harris’ case against O’Malley and Zumwalt.
In Harris’ federal suit, he accuses the city; Texarkana, Ark., Mayor Ruth Penney Bell; and his fellow board members of conspiring together to violate his civil rights. He is asking that the censure of him be declared “null and void” and for a declaration from the court that the city defendants “has violated the laws.”
Harris alleges the city defendants have violated his rights to free speech and due process and that they are guilty of conspiracy, retaliation, humiliation and of civil rights violations.
“Declare that the ‘City’ violate Due Process Clause, Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution; Declare that the “City” and the 1st Amendment (sic),” the federal complaint states.
Harris also requests compensatory and punitive damages.
The federal case is currently pending before U.S. District Judge Susan Hickey in the Texarkana Division of the Western District of Arkansas. The defendants in the federal case have not filed a response.