Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) Chair Xavier Avila received a letter from the Law Offices of Melo and Sarsfield on January 7 to stop communicating with the founder of the Caring Cause Facebook group, Elaine Hollingsworth.
Avila threatened Hollingsworth, the group administrator, with legal action on January 7. According to Hollingsworth, his text stated:
“You are accusing me of bullying people. That is slander. I will seek a lawsuit against you. I have all the evidence. It’s hypocritical how the people on Caring Cause who speak up positive get bullied by your members. If I’m bullying anyone then why are they posting what I have said? I’m giving you a chance to fix this Situation. It’s your choice. If you choose not to fix it then I will sue you. I already have legal council and they have all the evidence.”
Avila did not specify what the “situation” was, or what post he was threatening action over.
In response to the legal threat, Hollingsworth has retained the Law Offices of Melo and Sarsfield as counsel. The firm has previously claimed Avila is in violation of state law by holding seats on both the cemetery board and the Tulare Local Healthcare District board.
Attorney Marguerite Melo sent Avila a letter stating Hollingsworth is “…very much aware of her rights under the First Amendment to criticize petty government officials such as yourself, or government agencies, such as the hospital or cemetery districts,” and that he should “[k]indly direct all further correspondence intended for Ms. Hollingsworth regarding this matter to this office.”
Avila did not respond to a request from the Valley Voice for comment, but did later post veiled claims against Hollingsworth, Tulare activist Alex Gutierrez, fellow board member Alberto Aguilar, and the Voice on a Facebook group that he is an administrator of, Political Perspective on the Tulare Cemetery.
Unprepared for threat
Hollingsworth currently cares for her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, in her home. On January 2, her mother was diagnosed with the final stages of congestive heart failure.
Against that backdrop, and working on just a few hours of sleep, Hollingsworth said her phone lit up last Friday with Avila’s text while she was trying to get her mother dressed for the day.
Hollingsworth’s first reaction she said was to send a text to Avila saying that her mother was dying and “you can go to Hell.”
She says that she decided against engaging with Avila but then queried, “Threaten to sue me for what? I haven’t commented about him for almost a year.”
Hollingsworth speculated that his threat of a lawsuit might originate from a message she posted two days prior she received in an email from the Valley Voice. The email informed her that Avila was using Caring Cause member’s comments against them.
Because of Avila’s alleged pattern of bullying and intimidating behavior, Hollingsworth said she decided to enlist the help of Melo and Sarsfield.
“I just think it’s horrific threatening me to sue after all the hell he has put so many people through, and put me through. And when he was a member of Caring Causing, and pissing on other members’ comments. The audacity to call Caring Cause members and me bullies,” she said.
“Wow, look who is calling the kettle black.”
Members of Caring Cause have complained to Hollingsworth about Avila’s alleged threatening behavior towards them on Facebook, in private messages, and via text message. Hollingsworth says that’s why she blocked Avila from the Caring Cause group about a year ago.
A resident of Visalia who did not want to be identified posted, “Couldn’t agree with you more. I had to block the Avila guy because both times I voiced my opinion he began to slander and verbally harass me on this page.”
Melo: Avila is violating his oath of office
“I think some of these officials don’t remember their oath of office. When they take the Oath of Office they swear to uphold the Constitution. When you swear to uphold the Constitution – that’s a big deal,” Melo said.
The First Amendment is one of the most basic rights a citizen has, with the greatest protection under the law, Melo said.
“It’s the citizens’ ultimate redress to confront the government or public figures,” she added.
Melo claims that Avila is “violating his oath of office to uphold the constitution, especially the First Amendment, when he threatens to sue a person expressing their opinion.”
In her letter, Melo states that the supposed slight against Avila’s character “was taken from the Valley Voice newspaper,” adding that “Ms. Hollingsworth’s opinion of you as a ‘bully’ is only being cemented by these abusive threats of litigation.”
Melo stated that if Avila were to bring action, Hollingsworth’s statements would be protected under California’s Anti-SLAPP (“Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”) laws, which protect free speech relating to public issues
According to the California Anti-SLAPP Project, “SLAPPs are often brought by corporations, real estate developers, or government officials and entities against individuals or organizations who oppose them on public issues.”
“I don’t know how many ways Mr. Avila has violated the constitution, three times at least” said Melo. “And fourth, do not make threats to sue a private citizen unless you are ready to go forward with the suit.”
“It calls into question Avila’s ability to fulfill his duties as a public official,” Melo said.
Not the first time a board member’s received a Cease and Desist Letter
Avila is not the first cemetery board member to receive a cease and desist letter.
Former cemetery board member Vicki Gilson sent a cease and desist letter to fellow board member Steve Presant in June of 2020, alleging he trespassed on her property; at the time, both were serving on the board.
“Ms. Gilson has authorized us to demand you cease and desist from coming onto her property or taking any picture of the property,” a letter from her attorney, Eric Eric Priedkalns of the Parker-Stanbury Law Firm, stated.
At the time, Presant and Avila were attempting to vacate Gilson’s seat and appoint a new trustee, claiming she had moved to Missouri while still sitting on the cemetery board.
Presant admitted on video during the TPCD May 23, 2020 meeting that he parked his car in her driveway, walked across her lawn, looked into her windows, turned on her water faucet, and took pictures of her property. He also knocked on her neighbor’s door, identified himself as a friend, and inquired of Gilson’s whereabouts.
Even though he lives across town and is not affected by Gilson’s property, he later reported her allegedly overgrown yard to Tulare Code Enforcement, according to the letter.
Avila admitted to doing the same during the September 17, 2020 meeting. He said that he drove by her house many times, claimed there was no trash service, spoke to her neighbors, spoke to people who attended Gilson’s church, and looked up her voter registration and her husband’s.
Avila asked Gilson during open session if she and her husband were separated, and why she had not voted in the March 3, 2020 primary.
Avila then accused Gilson of being “registered here illegally.”
Avila continued, “Where are your heirlooms? Where are your baby pictures? Where do you go to the doctor? Where do you buy your gas? Where do you do your banking?”
He only stopped when Trustee Aguilar fumed “If it were me, I would sue the hell out of you and you can quote me on that.”
Gilson explained that she splits her time between her Missouri home and Tulare residence, which is her primary residence.
Avila stated that he intended to continue to drive by her house just to check. When the public grumbled with discontent Avila snapped back, “I can drive by anybody’s house I want to and you can’t tell me I can’t.”
Avila calls out Hollingsworth, Gutierrez, and fellow board member Alberto Aguilar
In Avila’s lengthy post he states, “It’s about a power trip. It’s about control and not about the cemetery. This person (Hollingsworth) thought they could control me and found out she could not. So she is intent on controlling what people think about me.”
Avila continued, “They don’t like it when you stand up to them. They get furious if you call out what they do….They are willing to lie about you! They will falsely accuse you of many things in order to either control you or control how people view you.”
Towards the end of his statement Avila said, “You do not have a first amendment right to slander and lie about people. You have a right to your opinion. You have a right to criticize. You have a right to disagree but you do not have a right to lie about someone.”
Taking a moment for self-reflection Avila said, “I’m not even close to being a perfect person. There are a vast amount of people who are a lot closer to perfect than myself.”