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Alston v. PW-Philadelphia Weekly

September 2, 2009

ALSON ALSTON, APPELLANT
v.
PW-PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY, GWEN SHAFFER, TOM COX, REVIEW PUBLISHING, FRANK KEEL, KEEL COMMUNICATIONS, REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY OF THE CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, FRANCIS BIELLI, CITY OF PHILADELPHIA AND MAYOR JOHN F. STREET



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Senior Judge Flaherty

Submitted: July 10, 2009

BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE JIM FLAHERTY, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Alson Alston (Alston) appeals, pro se, from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court) dated February 12, 2007, which sustained the preliminary objections filed by the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia (Authority), spokesman for the Authority, Frank Keel (Keel), and Keel Communications, Keel's employer.*fn1

Alston also appeals by apparent intent the trial court's order dated October 25, 2006, which order was previously appealed to the Superior Court and subsequently marked as withdrawn and discontinued on January 5, 2007. The Order of October 25, 2006, sustained the preliminary objections filed by the City of Philadelphia (City), Mayor John F. Street (Mayor Street), and Deputy City Solicitor Francis Bielli (Solicitor Bielli).*fn2

We affirm both orders.

On August 10, 2005, the PW-Philadelphia Weekly (Weekly) published an article entitled "Strange Brew" which was written by Gwen Shaffer (Shaffer). The article discussed development plans for a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood known as Brewerytown and referenced various people and agencies involved in the project, including Alston, who, at the time, was the president of the African-American Business & Residents Association, a Brewerytown grassroots organization. The article included a statement made about Alston by Keel.

Alston alleged in his complaint that Shaffer's article was to address the politics of real estate development and gentrification in Brewerytown. However, according to Alston, Shaffer's article directly attacked his participation in Brewerytown's growth because he opposed the City's development plans for fear of its gentrification effects.

In researching the article, Shaffer investigated Alston's finances, real estate ownership and tax records. Shaffer received some of her information from Solicitor Bielli. Alston alleges that the Weekly's publication of this information about him was defamatory and false. Shaffer's Amended Complaint, Paragraph 16, at 5. Tom Cox (Cox) was alleged to be the fact checker for Shaffer and responsible for confirming Shaffer's news sources and facts in the article. Alston asserts that both Shaffer and Cox failed to challenge assertions made by others cited in the article. Alston alleges that Shaffer's bias toward the City's scheme to improve Brewerytown resulted in an unbalanced and unfair story.

On August 6, 2006, Alston commenced a defamation action against Shaffer, Cox, the Weekly, Review Publishing (owner of the Weekly), Keel, Keel Communications, the Authority, Solicitor Bielli, the City and Mayor Street (Collectively, Appellees), seeking both compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $50,000.00. Alston believes that the article attacked his credibility, and that his reputation as a community member has been "irreparably harmed" as a result of the article. Id., Paragraph 44, at 12. In his complaint, Alston attached a catalogue of approximately 43 citations listing what Alston claims as "false [assertions] and are based upon false or deliberately ambiguous statements, research and information." Id., Paragraph 27 at 8.

On September 18, 2006, Mayor Street, Solicitor Bielli and the City filed preliminary objections. The City claimed that it was immune from all state law tort claims, and Mayor Street and Solicitor Bielli were immune because of their "high public official" status. They further contended that if they were not immune to tort claims, that Alston failed to establish the elements of defamation because Mayor Street, Solicitor Bielli and the City did not publish the article and the City and Mayor Street were not quoted in the article. Additionally, Solicitor Bielli claimed his comments in the article were truthful. On October 25, 2006, Mayor Street, Solicitor Bielli and the City's preliminary objections were granted.*fn3

On October 30, 2006, Keel, Keel Communications and the Authority filed preliminary objections to Alston's amended complaint. Keel contended that his comment that Alston "is no more than a land speculator who cloaks himself in the guise of a community activist" was an expression of opinion and not actionable under the law. Keel Communications contended that it could not be held vicariously liable, as Keel's comments were not defamatory. Keel, Keel Communications and the Authority collectively argued that they could not be held liable for defamation because they were not responsible for the publication of the article. Lastly, the Authority asserts immunity under 42 Pa. C.S. §§8541-8542, commonly referred to as the "Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act," (Act). The trial court sustained these preliminary objections on February 12, 2007.

Review Publishing, Shaffer and Cox (collectively, media defendants) also filed preliminary objections which the trial court denied. On December 11, 2007, Alston reached a settlement with the media defendants. Alston later claimed two terms in the settlement were breached by the media defendants in his motion of extraordinary relief seeking to void the agreement. This dispute was resolved at a June 3, 2008 joint pre-trial conference.

After resolving the settlement disputes with the media defendants, Alston filed an appeal of the trial court's February 12, 2007 order which granted Keel, Keel Communications and the Authority's preliminary objections and dismissed Alston's claims. Alston's concise statement of matters complained of on appeal was filed on August 12, 2008. By order dated September 15, 2008, ...


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