Local blogger settles lawsuit against Fairhope council

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Local blogger Paul Ripp’s lawsuit against Fairhope City Council President Jack Burrell and the rest of the city council has been settled, according to a recent blog post by Ripp and documents filed with the federal court system obtained by The Courier.

The lawsuit stemmed from Burrell’s denial of letting Ripp speak during the public comments portion of the Aug. 28, 2017, city council meeting - a move which Ripp claimed violated his constitutional rights. Ripp filed suit against Burrell and the city in Dec. 2017.

In a Friday, Oct. 19 post on his blog entitled “Loser,” Ripp said he settled the suit with the city’s insurance company, writing:

I decided to settle the case with the Insurance Company for many reasons,” Ripp wrote. “One being, I knew the Council and Burrell would never apologize and that going to court was going to be very expensive for the city.”

Ripp went on to say he heard Burrell had been “bragging” about the outcome of the case.

“I have now settled the lawsuit and deposited the settlement check in the bank,” Ripp wrote. “On the same day someone called me and said Mr. Burrell was bragging that I should have never settled for so little, that I should have held out for more money. Burrell said that the city had won because I settled for so little.”

In an interview on Oct. 22 on WABF Radio, Burrell denied that claim.

“I have no idea where that comes from,” Burrell said. “It’s just gibberish. How do you address anything that’s written on there?”

Burrell confirmed the lawsuit had been settled by the insurance company, which did not require the consent of the council to do so.

“The insurance company settled and the insurance company had that right to settle,” Burrell said. “Many of us would have been in favor of going to trial and not settling, but the insurance company doesn’t have to have a right to consent - they can settle without the consent of the council.”

Ripp wrote he would use the funds he got in the lawsuit to continue the promotion of issues on his blog.

“Today The Ripp Report is going to pay all of their attorney fees, the company American Express Card, the accountant, advertising bills, the computer services and bank charges,” Ripp wrote. “This is the first time The Ripp Report has been in the black in years. The balance of money will be used to further the efforts of The Ripp Report, thanks to Council President Burrell.”

According the the joint stipulation of dismissal filed in federal court Oct. 20, both parties agreed to bear their own attorneys’ fees and costs.

History of the lawsuit

In late December 2017, blogger Paul Ripp filed a lawsuit in federal court against Fairhope Council President Jack Burrell for actions taken by Burrell at an Aug. 28, 2017, Fairhope City Council meeting where Ripp said Burrell denied him his “constitutional rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Ripp, the author of the Ripp Report blog, posted a copy of the lawsuit he filed on a Dec. 29, 2017, post entitled “SEE YA IN COURT JACK.”

“The meeting in question, along with Ripp’s nasty confrontation with Council President Burrell—who denied Ripp his right to speak in a public forum sanctioned by City of Fairhope ordinance—and threatened his removal and arrest for trying to address the council—was captured on the official video of the council meeting,” Ripp wrote.

Ripp wrote this was the first time he had filed suit against the City of Fairhope regarding the issue of allowing him to speak.

“This is the first time Ripp has sued the City of Fairhope over refusing to allow him to address the city council,” Ripp wrote. “The city had denied him in the past, several times, the ability to speak at public meetings, forcing the council to adopt a new set of rules regarding public participation. These are the rules City Councilman Jack Burrell ignored when he allegedly denied Mr. Ripp, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Viet Nam, his constitutional right to free speech.”

During the Aug. 28, 2017, meeting, as Ripp approached the podium to speak, Burrell told him he would not be allowed to speak.

The following audio comes directly from The Courier’s recording checked against footage from the City of Fairhope’s video archives.

Burrell: No, sir. Mr. Ripp, I’m not going to allow you to speak.

Ripp: Really?

Burrell: No, sir, I’m not. You’ve relinquished your rights. It’s a privilege, and I’ve had more complaints about you getting up here and spreading innuendo, talking about citizens and employees and council members. Most people that I’ve talked to don’t want to give you the time of day. Chief, if you will show him back to his seat. Take a seat. I’m not allowing you to speak.

Ripp: Are you aware this has been done before five times?

Burrell: It doesn’t matter to me what’s been done before. It’s a right, not a privilege (pause) a privilege, not a right, so you can take your seat. I’ve heard enough from you.

Burrell: Is there anyone else who would like to speak? (To Ripp) You can go back and write all you want to. Don’t say a word. You’re going to go to jail.

Ripp: I will.

Burrell: Good.

When asked for a comment shortly after that Aug. 2017 meeting, Burrell said he never threatened to remove Ripp from the meeting.

“I didn’t kick him out, and I didn’t violate his free speech,” Burrell said. “There was never an instruction for him to be removed. That was not my instruction to Chief Petties at all. I think he chose to walk out so he could say he got kicked out, which is not at all what happened.”

Nowhere in the recording of the exchange does Burrell instruct Petties to escort Ripp from the room.

Ripp also called out the other council members, City Clerk Lisa Hanks and former City Attorney Tut Wynne and current City Attorney Marcus McDowell for their part in the event.

“City Attorneys, council council (sic) and city clerk, remained mute during Mr Burrell’s actions,” Ripp wrote. “Ripp’s lawsuit seeks damages for what he described as “humiliation” and “emotional pain.”

In the suit filed by attorney Gregory Morris, however, Ripp originally only sued Burrell, both as an individual and as a city official for his actions.

The lawsuit alleges Burrell violated the City Council’s rules of procedure in not allowing Ripp to speak during the meeting.

“The City Council President embarrassed and humiliated the Plaintiff, causing the Plaintiff to suffer grave emotional stress,” the lawsuit alleges. “Clearly, the City Council President was acting beyond his presumption of qualified immunity. The City Council President’s language and his tone and tenor were clearly an attack on the Plaintiff personally as well as an affront against civil liberty.”

On June 29, Ripp’s attorney filed an amended complaint to the court that sought to add Councilmen Robert Brown, Jay Robinson, Jimmy Conyers and Kevin Boone as additional defendants in the lawsuit, as well as City Attorney McDowell.

“The proposed added Defendants would clarify the Plaintiff’s constitutional claims as well as bring to light a due process claim against the City of Fairhope and the City Council Members, acting officially,” the motion stated. “These new claims would be based on similar grounds to those alleged in connection with the claims against the individual capacity defendant, Jack Burrell.”

Burrell’s attorney filed a response to that motion on July 6, asking the judge to deny the inclusion of McDowell in the lawsuit as he was not serving as city attorney at the time of the incident being litigated.

“Plaintiff’s cause of action arose on August 28, 2017 during the regular meeting of the City Council of the City of Fairhope,” the response said. “Mr. McDowell was not the City Attorney of the City of Fairhope at that time. In fact, Mr. McDowell was not appointed as City Attorney until December 18, 2017.”

An amended complaint filed July 16 removed McDowell but did have Boone, Brown, Conyers and Robinson added as defendants.

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