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Vonderheide v. Harrisburg Area Community College

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

October 23, 2019

BENNETT J. VONDERHEIDE aka DADDY JUSTICE, Plaintiff,
v.
THE HARRISBURG AREA COMMUNITY COLLEGE, JOHN J. SYGIELSKI, VICTOR E. RAMOS, IVAN A. QUINONES, WILLIAM C. RIVERA, SARA CRILL, and MATTHEW CRILL, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          EDWARD G. SMITH EDWARD G. SMITH, J.

         The pro se plaintiff originally commenced this action claiming that the defendants violated his First Amendment rights when they purportedly retaliated against him after he entered the campus of the defendant community college and contacted four of its employees. Although the complaint does not discuss the substance of the plaintiff's conversations with the four employees, two of the defendants, who are married parents and adjunct professors at the community college, believe that the plaintiff was discussing the welfare of their children with the employees. The married professors have now filed a counterclaim against the plaintiff where they assert that he has created two websites pertaining to them which, inter alia, accuse the mother of child abuse and indicate that their children may be in extreme danger due to abuse. The professors also allege that the plaintiff has sent e-mails to administrators at the community college with links to these websites. They raise concerns that the websites are (1) defamatory, (2) interfere with their contractual relations with the community college, (3) a false light invasion of privacy, and (4) established to intentionally cause them severe emotional distress. The professors are concerned with their well-being and the well-being of their three minor children, whose names were posted online along with various allegations about their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

         The professors have now moved for a preliminary injunction against the plaintiff to, inter alia, have him remove the two websites from the internet. In resolving this motion, the court must navigate the intricate balance between the professors' privacy, reputation, and contractual relationship rights versus the plaintiff's First Amendment freedom of speech rights.

         The court has thoroughly reviewed all evidence in the record and has considered the parties' arguments in support of their respective positions. After reviewing the entire record, the court finds that the professors are entitled to preliminary injunctive relief because they have shown that they are likely to succeed on the merits of several of their causes of action and they have also demonstrated irreparable harm. In addition, balancing the non-moving party's interest and the public interest supports granting the motion. Accordingly, the court will grant the motion for a preliminary injunction and will direct the plaintiff to temporarily remove the websites from the internet pending resolution of this matter.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On July 16, 2019, the pro se plaintiff, Bennett J. Vonderheide, also known as “Daddy Justice” (“Mr. Vonderheide”), filed a civil complaint against Matthew Crill (“Mr. Crill”) and Sara Crill (“Mrs. Crill”) (collectively, “the Crills”), The Harrisburg Area Community College (“HACC”), and against various other members of the HACC administration. Doc. No. 1. In the complaint, Mr. Vonderheide appears to allege that the defendants defamed him and violated his rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in connection with an April 11, 2019 visit that he made to the Lancaster Campus of the Harrisburg Area Community College (“HACC”). See generally Compl. at 3-13.

         HACC filed an answer to the complaint on August 12, 2019, and then filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings on August 26, 2019. Doc. Nos. 3, 5. The Crills filed their own answer and a counterclaim against Mr. Vonderheide on September 10, 2019. Doc. No. 7.

         In the counterclaim, the Crills allege that they have contracted with HACC to serve as adjunct professors. Answer, Affirmative Defenses, and Countercl. of Defs. Sara Crill and Matthew Crill to Pl.'s Compl. at 17, Doc. No. 7. They believe that Mr. Vonderheide operates and maintains two websites, saracrill.com and saracrillhacc.com (collectively, the “Website” as both addresses redirect to the same website), with the Website publishing false and defamatory statements regarding the Crills. For example, they assert that (1) the Website accuses Mrs. Crill of child abuse; (2) the Website's heading reads “EXTREME DANGER ALERT” in all capital letters and bold font; and (3) the Website has a page alleging the “rage exhibited by Sara” and asks the reader to be “exceptionally alert and aware. We have seen to [sic] many cases where distraught mothers hurt and in many cases actually murder their own children and then commit suicide.” Id. at 18. The Website also identifies the Crills' minor children by name. Id.

         The Crills allege that Mr. Vonderheide also emailed links to the Website to HACC administrators and encouraged them to visit the Website. Id. at 18, 19. Mr. Vonderheide also visited the HACC campus on September 6, 2019, and during this visit he posted signs on and around the campus for the saracrill.com website. Id. at 19. Apparently, Mr. Vonderheide and others acting on his behalf also posted these signs at other places in Lancaster City and East Lampeter Township. Id.

         Based on these allegations, the Crills assert causes of action for (1) defamation, (2) intentional interference with contractual relations, (3) invasion of privacy, and (4) intentional infliction of emotional distress. Id. at 20-24. They seek monetary damages and injunctive relief. Id. at 20-26.

         Two days after filing the counterclaim, the Crills filed a motion for a preliminary injunction and for a temporary restraining order. Doc. No. 9. Mr. Vonderheide submitted a response to the motion for judgment on the pleadings on September 20, 2019. Doc. No. 13 The court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction on September 25, 2019. On the day of the hearing, the Crills submitted their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Doc. No. 14. Mr. Vonderheide represented himself during the hearing and requested that the court grant him electronic filing privileges.

         On September 26, 2019, the court issued an order which, inter alia, (1) granted Mr. Vonderheide's oral request for electronic filing privileges, (2) directed the Crills to supplement their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law by September 27, 2019, and (3) required Mr. Vonderheide to submit his response to the motion for a preliminary injunction or his own proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law by October 3, 2019. Sept. 26, 2019 Order at 1- 2, Doc. No. 16. The Crills filed their supplemental proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on September 27, 2019. Doc. No. 17. Mr. Vonderheide filed his answer to the Crills' counterclaim on September 30, 2019, and he filed his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on October 3, 2019. Doc. Nos. 18, 19.

         This matter then became ripe for review, but on October 7, 2019, the Crills filed an amendment with the court revising and narrowing the relief requested in the motion for a preliminary injunction. Doc. No. 20. The Crills requested a court order directing Mr. Vonderheide to remove the Website, or in the alternative, an order prohibiting Mr. Vonderheide from directly or indirectly communicating the website addresses or their contents to the Crills' employer or potential employers and ordering the removal of the Crills' minor children's names or statements or opinions regarding their purported mental or physical health or condition from the websites. Id.

         On October 9, 2019, Mr. Vonderheide, in response to the Crills' amendment with the court, sent a letter to the court asking for this court to find that the Crills' injunctive action was frivolous. Doc. No. 21. Mr. Vonderheide asked the court to find the injunction to be moot, as he has redacted and removed the three minor children's names, and he has removed certain statements from the Website that alleged concerns about excessive computer time impacting the 6 year old's brain, and statements implying that Mrs. Crill might murder her own children and commit suicide. Mr. Vonderheide asked this court not to consider the Crills' amendment to this court, as it was after the timeframe that the court gave the Crills to file their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. In the interest of justice, this court has considered both the Crills' amendment to the court and Mr. Vonderheide's response letter to the court in ruling on the Crills' motion for a preliminary injunction.

         II. FINDINGS OF FACT

         After carefully considering all the evidence presented during the evidentiary hearings on September 25, 2019, and after assigning such weight to the evidence as the court deemed proper and disregarding the testimony that the court found to lack credibility, the pertinent facts are as follows:

         A. The Crills

         1. Mr. Crill and Mrs. Crill are a married couple residing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Crills have three minor children ages 6, 11, and 16.

         2. The Crills are employed as adjunct professors for the Lancaster Campus of HACC. The Crills have had a contractual relationship with HACC and had one in the spring of 2018.

         3. The Crills and Mr. Crill's parents do not get along. The Crills have significant issues with Mr. Crill's father, David Crill (“paternal grandfather”), and his wife about the way paternal grandfather was involved in the Crills' children's lives.

         4. The Crills were upset that paternal grandfather would let their youngest son have unmonitored access to an iPad, on which he played violent video games.

         5. The Crills were also concerned after their youngest son mentioned that their daughter slept naked in the same bed as paternal grandfather, although the Crills acknowledge that they have no evidence that anything inappropriate took place.

         6. The Crills also wanted to limit their children's contact with paternal grandfather after he informed them that he would never consider their oldest son, who is Mr. Crill's stepson and Mrs. Crill's son, as part of Mr. Crill's family.

         7. The Crills attempted to set boundaries with paternal grandfather, which eventually led to the Crills severing their relationship with him.

         8. The Crills know Mr. Vonderheide as paternal grandfather's good friend, and as a result, they have been acquaintances with Mr. Vonderheide for several years.

         9. In the past, the Crills have paid Mr. Vonderheide to watch their house and pets while they were away in the past.

         B. The Website

         10. In May 2019, Mr. Vonderheide established the Website. Crill Aff. at ¶ 1.

         11. Mr. Vonderheide acknowledged on the record during the court's teleconference on September 19, 2019, that he was responsible for creating and maintaining the Website.

         12. The Website implies that Mrs. Crill abuses her three children and that the three children suffer from various mental and emotional conditions. The Website identified the Crills' minor ...


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