SF gay man drops woman from libel suit

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Monday May 16, 2022
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A "wanted" poster that appeared on Twitter accuses harm reduction advocate Gary McCoy of murder, prompting him to sue for libel. Photo: Courtesy McCoy lawsuit
A "wanted" poster that appeared on Twitter accuses harm reduction advocate Gary McCoy of murder, prompting him to sue for libel. Photo: Courtesy McCoy lawsuit

Gay San Francisco health advocate Gary McCoy has dropped one of the defendants in the $1.9 million lawsuit he filed May 9 after she reposted a Twitter meme accusing McCoy of murdering 1,500 people at the Tenderloin Linkage Center. He is still suing the alleged source of the offending tweet, an individual who goes by what is assumed to be a pseudonym, Karl Brandt, although that person's identity has not yet been confirmed.

The civil lawsuit, filed at San Francisco Superior Court, named personal finance guru Erica Sandberg, who has appeared on air as a personal finance expert at San Francisco-based KRON-4 and is a regular contributor to U.S. News and World Report, after she retweeted on April 18 the meme about McCoy, vice president of policy and public affairs at HealthRIGHT 360, a California-based health conglomerate. (McCoy is also a co-chair of the Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club and previously served as a district staffer for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.)

The meme, initially created by the person behind the Karl Brandt Twitter account at @KarlBra47328382, was picked up by San Francisco-based Sandberg, who retweeted it to her more than 8,000 followers. It depicts a photo of McCoy on an Old-West-themed wanted poster with a caption in all caps reading "Wanted Gary McCoy harm reduction advocate for the murder of 1500 plus drug addicts at the failed Linkage Center."

The Tenderloin Center, the new name of the linkage center, opened in January near United Nations Plaza as part of Mayor London Breed's declaration of a state of emergency in the Tenderloin. It offers food, water, hygiene supplies, dignity services, and social space. The center includes referrals to behavioral health care and treatment; substance use treatment; temporary winter shelter; transitional housing; the Homeward Bound program; food coordination; vocational support; therapy and mentoring; and child and family care.

McCoy´s attorney, Alex Lemberg, who identifies as nonbinary, called the murder allegation against their client "jaw-dropping and patently false." A spokesperson at the San Francisco Department of Public Health told the Bay Area Reporter there have been no deaths at the Tenderloin Center. The facility remains open.

The decision to drop Sandberg came before McCoy and Lemberg received an initial notice from San Francisco-based Dhillon Law Group demanding dismissal, Lemberg wrote in an email to the Bay Area Reporter, as McCoy had already been considering the move.

In a statement sent out by Lemberg just before hearing from Dhillon Law Group, McCoy stated, "As a person in recovery, and after much thought and consultation with my support network, I've decided early this morning to dismiss Ms. Sandberg from my lawsuit. While I still believe I have a solid complaint and have undoubtedly been impacted by her irresponsible actions on Twitter, I also believe that like most people that don't agree with one another on things, we probably have more in common than not. I also believe that Ms. Sandberg didn't directly intend for her tweet to result in the threats to my safety."

Lemberg said they weren't surprised by Sandberg´s actions.

¨She predictably hired the services of Harmeet Dhillon, a well-known Republican operative and Fox News correspondent, and predictably threatened an anti-SLAPP motion, which involves payment of attorney's fees to the party who gets a favorable decision on that motion," Lemberg stated, referring to strategic lawsuits against public participation.

"It brought up a tricky area of law, and I was fully ready and willing to appeal this as far as necessary, assuming Sandberg succeeded on an anti-SLAPP motion. Ultimately, dismissing Sandberg was a personal decision that Gary made for the reasons laid out in his press release and not because of a legal threat, which we hadn't even received yet," Lemberg added.

SLAPP suits are controversial and a number of organizations, including Washington, D.C.-based the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, work to defend members of the press and others who might be affected by them.

¨Under most anti-SLAPP statutes, the person sued makes a motion to strike the case because it involves speech on a matter of public concern," according to the RCFP. "The plaintiff then has the burden of showing a probability that they will prevail in the suit — meaning they must show that they have evidence that could result in a favorable verdict. If the plaintiff cannot meet this burden and the suit is dismissed through anti-SLAPP proceedings, many statutes allow defendants to collect attorney's fees from the plaintiff."

The Dhillon Law Group did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

With Sandberg´s dismissal from the lawsuit, the case now is based solely upon the actions of the pseudonymous Karl Brandt but that person's identity ¨has not been verified and that is going to take awhile, as I have to subpoena Twitter for that information. But we filed a dismissal as to all defendants except the original poster," said Lemberg.

¨We will continue to litigate this case against the original poster of the Twitter post in question,¨ they said, ¨as the legal argument presented by Sandberg does not apply to that person.¨

The use of the name Karl Brandt, according to Lemberg, is not insignificant.

"Notably, there is no living person named Karl Brandt in San Francisco," Lemberg stated May 11, "most likely because historically, Karl Brandt was the personal physician to Adolf Hitler, sentenced to death at Nuremberg in 1946 for crimes against humanity."

The use of Nazi emblems and swastikas appears throughout Brandt's postings, as evidenced by the Twitter account that remained active as of May 16. The accusation that McCoy is responsible for the deaths at the Tenderloin Center strikes particularly close to home as McCoy, who has been sober for 11 years, according to Lemberg, struggled with addiction for many years and has spent much of his professional life helping others in the same situation.

In August 2021, McCoy embarked on a hunger strike outside San Francisco City Hall to try and convince city leaders to declare an emergency around the city's growing overdose crisis. The strike lasted 60 hours before seven city supervisors were convinced to support his effort. The Tenderloin emergency declaration, approved by the Board of Supervisors after a marathon meeting December 24, was an outgrowth of that effort.

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