(The Center Square) – The payroll software company Paycom and its billionaire CEO, Chad Richison, are suing a free-market think tank in Oklahoma, claiming it spread false statements about Richison’s position on business closures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), named in the lawsuit, denies the claim. OCPA's president, Jonathan Small, said his non-profit disagrees with Richison's opinion on business closures and has the same First Amendment rights the billionaire has in advocating for its position on the state's COVID-19 response.
The lawsuit stems from a letter sent by Richison in his capacity as Paycom CEO to Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt on March 22, in which Richison laid out a plan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the state.
“We can’t afford not to act any longer, Governor,” Richison wrote in his letter. “In the interest of winning the battle against this virus and saving the lives of our fellow Oklahomans, I offer the following actions in response to your call for ideas.”
Among his recommendations, Richison called for a ban on non-essential travel at the state's airports and for grocery stores to offer “drive-thru pick up or delivery.”
Richison also called on the governor to “temporarily suspend personal-touch services in order to adhere to social distancing, which includes, but is not limited to, hair salons, nail salons, spas and massage parlors.”
On March 23, Ray Carter, director of the Center for Independent Journalism at the OCPA, mentioned Richison’s letter in a post about Stitt’s response to COVID-19.
“Some individuals have called for Stitt to order most businesses to close and have the government control how others operate, including grocery stores. Chad Richison, CEO of Paycom, is among those who have advocated such actions,” Carter wrote.
In response, Paycom filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma County District Court alleging that OCPA falsely stated Richison’s position on business closures.
OCPA “continues to harbor animosity and malice” toward the company, the lawsuit alleges. The think tank and Richison in the past have disagreed on policies such as tax increases to raise revenue.
“Paycom did not advocate for the closure of most businesses,” the lawsuit says. “Instead, Paycom advocated only for the temporary closure of personal-touch service businesses such as spas, hair salons, nail salons, and massage parlors.”
The Oklahoma-headquartered company also alleges OCPA “disseminated” the false information to Paycom’s customers and potential customers, leading to loss of revenue and tortious interference – a legal term that implies an individual or group intentionally damages another's business relationships with a third party.
“OCPA’s dissemination of the false statements about Paycom has caused and will cause Paycom to suffer damages, including lost revenue and/or remediation expenses to mitigate the damages caused by OCPA’s false statements,” the lawsuit continues.
Small responded saying that while there have been policy disagreements over the years, his organization isn’t at fault for Paycom losing business.
“OCPA and Chad Richison have engaged in public-policy debates. Sometimes our views align, sometimes they do not. Today, Chad Richison continues to exercise his First Amendment rights; it’s a shame he does not respect the First Amendment rights of others,” he said.
“In recent months, Richison, a billionaire, advocated for closure of many businesses while OCPA argued for preserving citizens’ ability to get the medical care they need and earn a living to provide for their families, especially since society’s most vulnerable are hardest hit by these business closures,” Small said.
“If Paycom has lost clients, it is not because OCPA truthfully reported on Richison’s public support and public advocacy for business shutdowns (including through a direct link to Richison’s public letter), but because of the economic consequences of governments following policies similar to those Richison endorsed,” he said.
John P. Falcone, who is representing Paycom in the lawsuit, did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.