By Jessica Mathews & Jon King /

A protest has been organized to support four former employees of a Howell-based restaurant company who are being sued by the owner for defamation.

Adam Merkel owns Diamonds, Cello and the Silver Pig in downtown Howell, as well as a Royal Oak venture. He has filed a lawsuit against former employees Kristen Kraft, Briana Swayze, Jessica Jeffrey-Friar and Nicholas Griffin for defamation and comments they made on social media he alleges are untrue. Protest organizers say they hope to convince Merkel to drop the lawsuit and plan to meet at 6pm Sunday in front of Howell City Hall to distribute signs and masks. According to a Facebook page, the group plans to demonstrate in the downtown area from 6 to 8pm.

Employees were initially laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic in March and then called back to work April 27th after Merkel was able to secure a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program, which has specific requirements. Some employees chose not to and posted related statements on social media.

Merkel Attorney Bryan Marcus told WHMI the employees were terminated because of their alleged defamatory statements and not because they declined to return to work when requested. Marcus says the social media statements crossed the line from opinion and were defamatory.

Swayze earlier told WHMI staff was given a 24-hour notice to return and some had legitimate concerns and aired grievances on social media - adding it also wasn’t clear what they would be paid, how much or when and there weren’t clear guidelines in place for health and safety.

The lawsuit seeks in excess of $25,000 or equitable relief in the form of injunctions specifying the defendants can’t disseminate false statements of fact.