Recently, Matt Schlapp, the head of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), was accused by a former Hershel Walker campaign worker of “aggressively fondling” him during the campaign. The man is described as “a a Republican strategist, a male in his late 30s. Schlapp and his wife Mercedes Schlapp have vehemently denied the allegations and raised issues from the man’s past to question his veracity and motivations. Now, the worker has filed a lawsuit alleging four counts battery, defamation (2), and conspiracy. However, it was the anonymous element that stood out in the filing.
The complaint offers details on the alleged encounter which began when the two went to Manuel’s Tavern. It alleges that Schlapp sat “unusually close to Mr. Doe” and bumped against him as they had drinks. In the car, he alleges that Schlapp’s “aggressive fondling of Mr. Doe’s genital area in a sustained fashion proceeded from rudeness and/or lust.”
The Schlapps denied the allegations, published on Jan. 5, 2023, in the Daily Beast story “Herschel Walker Staffer: Matt Schlapp ‘Groped’ My Crotch.” They are accused of launching a counter campaign and Mercedes Schlapp is accused of depicting Doe as a troubled individual who was fired for lying on his resume. The basis for the allegation against Mercedes Schlapp is her response to neighbors expressing concern for the family in a neighborhood chatroom. She actually said that they would be sticking to the statement written by their lawyers–always a smart move. However, she added a factual claim:
“We have learned that the accuser is a troubled individual. He has been fired from multiple jobs including one firing for lying and lying on his resume. We are sticking to our lawyers statement. With God’s help, we have stayed strong and the girls are amazingly strong.”
That constitutes a factual claim (not opinion) and a publication. Doe categorically denies that he has been ever “fired for lying or lying on his resume.”
The complaint also seems to seek to hold the couple vicariously liable for the statements of what are described as “confederates” but cites one in particular:
50. Confederates of Mr. Schlapp and Ms. Schlapp also joined with them in seeking to impugn Mr. Doe’s reputation. One such confederate, who upon information and belief was acting in concert with Mr. Schlapp and Ms. Schlapp, was Ms. Wren, an organizer of the January 6, 2021 “Stop the Steal” rally that led to the attempted insurrection at the United States Capitol. Ms. Wren posted largely false information about Mr. Doe on Twitter, and peddled that false information to reporters.
51. For instance, on January 11, 2023, Ms. Wren posted on Twitter with respect to a CNN report discussing Mr. Schlapp’s sexual battery of Mr. Doe:
“’the republican strategist alleges’. He’s not a ‘strategist’, he was a 39 yr old volunteer driver who had been fired from multiple campaigns for lying and unethical behavior. @jamiegangor knew this, chose not to report it, and is now reporting her lies on television.”
52. Mr. Doe was not a volunteer driver. Nor was Mr. Doe “fired from multiple campaigns for lying and unethical behavior.” Both statements are false, and the latter statement is false and defamatory.
53. Also on January 11, 2023, Ms. Wren posted on Twitter: “He wasn’t young. He was a 44 year old volunteer driver who has been fired from multiple jobs for being a habitual liar.”
54. Mr. Doe is not 44 years old. He was not a volunteer driver. Nor was Mr. Doe “fired from multiple jobs for being a habitual liar.” All three statements are false, and the latter statement is false and defamatory
Wren, however, is not being sued but her comments are being attributed to the couple as part of this lawsuit.
All of this will now be hashed out in a Virginia courthouse. However, it was the anonymous filing that was a bit curious. After all, Doe is demanding millions in damages for “suffered damages, including without limitation embarrassment, humiliation, distress, and reputational harm.”
Notably, the damages are largely compensatory rather than punitive, meaning that he has suffered millions in losses despite his anonymous status. That includes not just $3,500,000 for the groping (plus $350,000 in punitive damages) but $1,500,000 for the defamation and conspiracy counts (plus the same $350,000 for punitive damages on each count.”
While the Schlapps are named, Doe insists that his identity should be protected under Virginia law. He admits that some have published his name but most have not. What is most notable is that part of the request for anonymity is based on the allegation of a history of threatening violence:
“9. There exist special circumstances such that the need for anonymity outweighs the public’s interest in knowing Mr. Doe’s identity and such need outweighs any prejudice to any other party. Mr. Doe’s anonymity is not intended merely to avoid the annoyance and criticism that may attend litigation. Instead, it is intended to preserve the privacy of the victim of a sexual battery. In addition, because Mr. Schlapp and Ms. Schlapp are well known, and in some quarters revered, amongst a portion of the population that has demonstrated a proclivity for threatening violence against those with whom they disagree, the identification of Mr. Doe poses an unusual risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to Mr. Doe. Mr. Schlapp and Ms. Schlapp will not suffer any unfairness as a result of Mr. Doe’s anonymity, because they have actual knowledge of Mr. Doe’s identity.
10. Mr. Doe’s identity is known to many persons in the media and the political world, and was further revealed in Twitter posts by Caroline Wren (Ms. Wren”). However, because Mr. Doe was the victim of a sexual battery, his name has not been widely published in the media.”
There is no support offered for that accusation of a history for threatening violence, but court filings are treated as privileged for the purposes of defamation. Otherwise, if false, this could be a basis for a counter defamation claim. (In fact, Schlapp’s counsel is reportedly considered a counter lawsuit, though the specific claims are unknown).
Under Virginia law, it is not clear if this complaint makes a sufficient showing for anonymity, particularly in a case alleging loss of reputation due to be named in the media. Here is the provision:
§ 8.01-15.1. Anonymous plaintiff; motion for identification; factors to be considered by court.
A. In any legal proceeding commenced anonymously, any party may move for an order concerning the propriety of anonymous participation in the proceeding. The trial court may allow maintenance of the proceeding under a pseudonym if the anonymous litigant discharges the burden of showing special circumstances such that the need for anonymity outweighs the public’s interest in knowing the party’s identity and outweighs any prejudice to any other party. The court may consider whether the requested anonymity is intended merely to avoid the annoyance and criticism that may attend any litigation or is to preserve privacy in a sensitive and highly personal matter; whether identification poses a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm to the requesting party or to innocent nonparties; the ages of the persons whose privacy interests are sought to be protected; whether the action is against a governmental or private party; and the risk of unfairness to other parties if anonymity is maintained.
The reference to a history of threatened violence is clearly designed to trigger one of those conditions. However, this is also a case of great public interest involving an adult accuser who has publicly made highly damaging allegations in the press and has reportedly been identified in some media forums.
The court is allowed to reconsider the anonymity at any stage in the litigation since the law also provided “the issue of the propriety of continued anonymous participation in the proceedings may be raised at any stage of the litigation when circumstances warrant a reconsideration of the issue.”
Here is the complaint: matt-schlapp-complaint-2023-01-17