Val Vista community

Earlier this year, some residents of the Val Vista community protested the board’s efforts to impose sanctions for social media posts it deemed defamatory.

Brewing beneath the idyllic surface of a sought-after community in Gilbert with waterfront homes, an ongoing tug-of-war between free speech and defamation could end up in court.

Nearly three dozen residents who have criticized the HOA board overseeing the 900-acre Val Vista Lakes Community are now facing a lawsuit from three former directors.

The lawsuit claims the defendants “engaged in defamatory, harassing, and otherwise violative conduct against one or more of the named plaintiffs.”

The suit also alleges a Facebook page and three other social media platforms “became a breeding ground for vitriol, hate speech, religious persecution and outright lies designed to injure plaintiffs.”

Resident Steven Nielsen, who with his wife were served the complaint last week, said, “To me the issue is just another attempt to stifle First Amendment rights. We are going just like we did in September of last year where certain board members tried to stop comments about their performance.”

Nielsen also questioned the timing of the lawsuit as the community of roughly 2,230 homeowners readies to vote in six new directors on the seven-member HOA board in November and several defendants had indicated their desire to run for election.

“It’s almost like (the lawsuit is) silencing or intimidating them,” Nielsen said.

The plaintiffs’ attorney Bradley Jardine declined to respond to Nielsen’s statements. 

The community, with its picturesque man-made mountain and cascading waterfalls near Baseline and Val Vista roads, grabbed headlines in January.

The board threatened to fine nine residents – eight of whom are named in the suit – if they didn’t remove their comments on a private Facebook page deemed defamatory and negative against the directors. 

The comments began last fall during board elections and included criticism of board decisions.

Shortly after the media stories, the board retracted the letters but the damage was done.

Several defendants in the current lawsuit organized a successful recall of President Marci Johnson and Vice President Melissa (Scovel) Wilson in June. The third plaintiff Cheryl McCoy was a director in previous years but her husband remains on the board.

The lawsuit calls Save VVL, the recall drive, “a hate and disinformation campaign” with “overlords” that included Nielsen, Ken Hassen, another former board member, and Ashley Nardecchia, who was the administrator of the Facebook page for community members.

The plaintiffs claim they were criticized for their association with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although Wilson is not a member.

It then named specific allegations against each defendant. 

For instance, Nardecchia, who did not return an email request for comment, was accused of penning articles and posting videos on the SaveVVL website that “falsely and maliciously claimed” Johnson and Wilson “engaged in voter fraud in the November 2019 elections, engaged in tax fraud, violated the CC&Rs, made false claims against others, sought personal gain through their role on the board, sought to serve a select group, breached their fiduciary duty to community, damaged home values, created increase liability risks for the community (and) hid board documentation concerning financial matters.”

She also was accused of writing articles for the SaveLLV website that “falsely and maliciously” claimed that McCoy’s husband, Todd McCoy, sits on the board to do her bidding.

Nardecchia’s husband, Joseph, also was named in the suit for allegedly posting false and disparaging remarks about Johnson and McCoy “for their LDS beliefs and accused them as acting as proxies for the LDS Church in dealing with board business.”

 The suit also claimed he posted a message that “encouraged community members to physically attack board members, including Johnson and Wilson.”

Nielsen declined to address the specific allegations directed at him in the suit.

“I can’t answer that because this is pending litigation. I’ve turned it over to an attorney,” said Nielsen adding there was sufficient documentation to be able to respond to the allegations in a meaningful way.

Nielsen, who was the City of Tempe project manger for Tempe Town Lake, moved to Val Vista Lakes in 2009. He served on the HOA Board from 2009-13 and again from 2018-19 and was president and vice president during his stints.

The letters sent to the nine current and former homeowners were not the current board’s only attempt to get a handle on social media posts.

Last fall, the board was crafting a social media policy that would ban homeowners from posting negative comments about the directors, residents or the Association’s employees and agents.

Penalties for violation included clubhouse privileges suspension, attorney fees and other costs related to enforcement action and fines ranging from $50 to $150. 

The board eventually tabled it after residents voiced objections.

No court date was set as of last week because a few of the named defendants have not yet been served. The lawsuit also reserved the right to add up to 15 more defendants.