MEMORANDUM OF OPINION & ORDER [Resolving ECF Nos. 24 and 29]
BENITA Y. PEARSON, District Judge.
Plaintiffs Berry Meadows and Deanna Meadows have brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that various officials of Trumbull County, Ohio, unlawfully retaliated against them for publishing critical remarks on Facebook, the "Trumbull County Septic News, " and other media. Two of the named defendants, James Enyeart and Frank Migliozzi, have responded by bringing a counterclaim against Plaintiffs for libel and slander.
The Court is called upon at this juncture to resolve Plaintiffs' Rule 12(b) motion to dismiss the counterclaim, ECF No. 24, and Enyeart and Migliozzi's Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings. ECF No. 29. The Court has reviewed the supporting memoranda, the responsive briefs, and the controlling law. For the reasons articulated below, the Court denies both motions.
I. Factual & Procedural History
A. Amended Complaint
Plaintiffs' amended complaint, which was filed on December 5, 2012, alleges the following facts. See ECF No. 20. Plaintiffs are engaged in the business of installing, repairing, and servicing septic systems. Defendant Thomas Altiere is the elected sheriff of Trumbull County, Ohio. Defendants Thomas Stewart and Sonny Schulyer are employed by the Trumbull County sheriff. Defendants Thomas Enyeart and Frank Migliozzi are employed by the Trumbull County Health Department ("TCHD"). Each defendant in this action is sued in his individual capacity.
According to the amended complaint, Plaintiffs, through "various media, " including Facebook, the Trumbull County Septic News, and public meetings of the TCHD, published statements that were critical of TCHD and several of the defendants in action. ECF No. 20 at 4. These statements include comments that (1) TCHD promoted a preference for the installation of a septic system manufactured or distributed by "EnviroGuard"; (2) although the septic system of Aliere's son was not in compliance with applicable laws and regulations, he was not required to upgrade his septic system as were other similarly situated property owners; (3) TCHD had permitted its attorney to avoid paying a $250 inspection fee; and (4) Enyeart and Migliozzi should be fired from their positions at the TCHD. ECF No. 20 at 4-5.
Plaintiffs allege that Defendants, "acting individually and in concert with one another" took the following "adverse actions": (1) Altiere and Stewart fabricated a police report and forwarded it to the Warren city prosecutor, knowing that criminal charges would be filed against Berry Meadows; (2) Altiere and Stewart threatened to arrest Berry Meadows, which threat induced him to surrender to the Warren police; (3) Altiere, Schulyer, and Migliozzi caused a "spurious" criminal complaint to be filed against Berry Meadows in Niles Municipal Court; (4) Enyeart widely publicized the facts of the "bogus" criminal charges and of Berry Meadows' arrest; (5) Enyeart and Migliozzi threatened Plaintiffs with "negative consequences" if they continued to criticize TCHD and "persons involved with TCHD"; and (6) Altiere, Enyeart, and Migliozzi "procured" without any legal basis the revocation of Plaintiffs' installer permit. ECF No. 20 at 5-7.
Plaintiffs aver that Defendants, acting "under color of law" deprived them of the right to free speech as afforded by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and of the right to be free from arrest and malicious prosecution under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. ECF No. 20 at 7. Plaintiffs also claim that Defendants deprived them of the right to equal protection of the laws as guaranteed under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. ECF No. 20 at 7.
Plaintiffs seek from Defendants, jointly and severally, compensatory damages in an amount not less than $1, 500, 000, punitive damages in an amount not less than $1, 500, 000, and other relief.
After the amended complaint was filed, Enyeart and Migliozzi filed a six-count counterclaim against Plaintiffs alleging libel and slander. ECF No. 22-1. The counterclaim alleges the following facts. In 2002, the State of Ohio filed a lawsuit against TCHD and the Trumbull County Board of Health ("TCBH") "due to Trumbull County's egregious septic and health violations...." ECF No. 22-1 at 2. As a result of the lawsuit, TCHD and TCBH entered into a Consent Decree with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency ("OEPA") requiring TCHD and TCBH to "eliminate septic system off-lot discharge, " "filter off-lot discharge with sand filters, " and achieve other sanitation goals. ECF No. 22-1 at 3. In 2008, TCHD, TCBH, and the State of Ohio amended the Consent Decree to permit the filtration of off-lot discharge with certain "tertiary filters" other than the sand filters required by the Consent Decree. ECF No. 22-1 at 3. On at least two occasions thereafter, Berry Meadows submitted applications to TCHD to obtain approval of "certain filter/filters for installation in Trumbull County." ECF No. 22-1 at 3. TCHD did not grant approval because "the filters at issue [had] not been subjected to or passed the proper testing to prove that they [met] the performance of the filter required by the Consent Decree." ECF No. 22-1 at 4.
Enyeart and Migliozzi allege that because TCHD did not approve Meadows' application, Plaintiffs, seeking to "discredit [them] with the TCHD/TCBH and the general public and to ultimately have [them] demoted and/or removed from their positions and employment with the TCHD, " ECF No. 22-1 at 6, published and continue to publish false and unfounded statements about Enyeart and Migliozzi to various entities, including TCHD, TCBH, the Ohio Sanitarian Registration Board, and to the general public. ECF No. 22-1 at 4-5. These statements include remarks that, "in exercising their professional duties, [Enyeart and Migliozzi] provide favors for friends' and that [they] wrongfully arrested and prosecuted Mr. Meadows." ECF No. 22-1 at 5. Plaintiffs allegedly published such statements on the Trumbull County Septic News webpage, in at least one complaint to the Ohio Board of Sanitarian Registration, in complaints to the TCHD and TCBH, and at monthly public meetings of TCBH. ECF No. 22-1 at 6-15.
Based on these allegations, Enyeart and Migliozzi seek injunctive relief, including the retraction of all defamatory statements made by Plaintiffs, compensatory damages, punitive ...