Two years after being filed, a civil lawsuit against organizers of the lethal Unite the Right rally is inching toward a trial date as defendants make steps to meet legal requirements.
Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe laid bear what outstanding discovery requests were holding up the case and said he would issue a motion to compel discovery from various defendants.
The suit was filed in October 2017 by a group of area residents against organizers and key participants in the Aug. 12, 2017, white supremacist rally. More than two dozen defendants initially were named, though a couple have been dismissed since.
The complicated case has lingered in federal court in Charlottesville for two years largely due to a lack of cooperation from many of the defendants, some of whom are now representing themselves, unable to find or afford counsel.
In Friday’s telephonic hearing, Hoppe sought to clarify exactly which defendants still owed discovery and what could be done to correct that. The plaintiffs are seeking access, via a third-party electronic imaging vendor, to various social media accounts, cellular and other electronic devices they allege the defendants used to conspire leading up to and during the Unite the Right rally.
Among the issues stalling discovery is an inability for the third-party vendor to access social media accounts that have been suspended or deleted by the platforms, which require consent from the owners.
James Kolenich, a dismissed defendant in the case who now represents various defendants, detailed these struggles and agreed to work with one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Michael Bloch, to get them access.
“It sounds like Mr. Bloch has had some success in contacting the platforms where I have not,” Kolenich said. “If he could prod them to contact us, my clients will sign whatever they need to. They know they need to sign these documents and stop hemming and hawing.”
Hoppe also indicated he would file a motion to compel discovery and deposition from Burt Collunuci, the current commander of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement. According to the attorney representing NSM, Collunuci has indicated he will not participate in the case unless he receives a subpoena.
Around an hour and a half into the two-hour hearing, neo-Nazi podcaster Chris Cantwell joined the call. Cantwell has been accused by the plaintiffs of making threats against the attorneys in the case. Well known for his virulent, slur-filled podcasts, Cantwell posted an article on June 18 describing Roberta Kaplan, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, as a “stupid k--e whore,” and wrote “we’re going to have a lot of f---ing fun with her” after the lawsuit ends.
Cantwell has argued the words do not constitute a threat.
In July, Kolenich and Elmer Woodard filed to drop Cantwell as their client, citing his abhorrent behavior and delinquent payments. Hoppe granted the motion Friday, but noted it was probably a moot point as Cantwell already had fired the attorneys.
Hoppe indicated he would likely issue a written ruling on a motion whether to enjoin Cantwell from making violent threats. However, Cantwell, who had not been on the call at the time Hoppe mentioned that, brought the issue up again at the end of the call.
As in his recent response filing, Cantwell again painted himself as a political victim who is being targeted for his political views. Attorneys for the plaintiffs disagree, pointing to their supplemental filing detailing Cantwell’s behavior.
Hoppe ended the call by suggesting the parties communicate about putting a schedule together for the discovery period, setting specific deadlines. After the discovery obligations have been met, Hoppe said he would feel comfortable setting a trial date.