PORT ANGELES — A Superior Court judge has ruled that the City of Sequim and Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe were not owed legal fees associated with a lawsuit filed by Save Our Sequim and Jon Gibson, owner of the Parkwood Manufactured Housing Community.
In a motion heard in civil court proceedings in Port Angeles on Friday, Sequim city attorney Kristina Nelson-Gross and Andy Murphy, representing the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, asserted that both entities were due remuneration for costs associated with the lawsuit contesting the tribe’s proposed 16,806-square-foot medication-assisted treatment (MAT) facility on South Ninth Avenue.
Nelson-Gross and Murphy argued that under state law and state court rule the lawsuit and corresponding actions were not only without legal merit but frivolous, and in some cases, Nelson-Gross said, brought with intent to “harass or intimidate the city.”
But Judge Brent Basden disagreed, saying Friday morning that “those who brought this lawsuit held honest beliefs and concerns … (I) don’t think anyone can say are frivolous.”
Basden said he didn’t see evidence that indicated the lawsuit brought by SOS and Gibson was designed to spite the legal system, and that the courts had seen “a large volume of material to establish that fact.”
City and tribe attorneys pointed to the Revised Code of Washington 4.84.185, which states, “In any civil action, the court having jurisdiction may, upon written findings by the judge that the action, counterclaim, cross-claim, third party claim, or defense was frivolous and advanced without reasonable cause, require the non-prevailing party to pay the prevailing party the reasonable expenses, including fees of attorneys, incurred in opposing such action, counterclaim, cross-claim, third party claim, or defense.”
However, Basden noted, a significant burden of proof is asked to apply that law.
“The reason it’s a high burden is … so there isn’t a chilling effect, so people can have their day in court without the fear of the financial consequences.”
Michael McLaughlin, attorney for Jon Gibson, said that the motions from both the city and tribe should fail because the lawsuit was not frivolous but rather “well-grounded.”
The lawsuit was spurred, McLaughlin said, by inherent confusion in the city code, and was primarily driven as a constitutional challenge to the Sequim code itself.
SOS attorney Michael A. Spence concurred.
“We believe the city made the wrong determination,” Spence said. “If the (hearing) examiner agrees with us, the tribe has to start from ground zero. That was our concern here.
“We believe our lawsuit that was well-grounded in fact.”
Spence argued that while city and tribe attorneys claimed his group was trying to side-step the Land Use Petition Act (LUPA) process, SOS was instead challenging the city’s codes and procedures — an effort that could affect other city activities such as building permits, other licenses and permits for city building usage.
“It’s a legitimate constitutional issue here; it happens to be in the context of a land use case,” he said.
Nelson-Gross said the lawsuit was brought with the “sole purpose to do whatever it takes to stop the tribe from moving on with their clinic.”
She added, “The city has maintained throughout this process the claims were without merit. City taxpayers should not have to pay for my time to respond to these frivolous claims.”
The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe should not have to spend money and time to research the lawsuit, Murphy said, because “this was a case brought without legal support” and that “they also have no legal support for their claims.”
Spence said the city has accused SOS of “racist, intolerant attitudes.”
He said, “We don’t have control of what people say on social media. We simply want our day in court.”
Basden said that cases such as these often “raises high emotions — those types of things tend to get said.”
Representatives with Save Our Sequim and Gibson filed an injunction on May 5 to halt construction and the application for the proposed facility that will treat clients with Opioid Use Disorder.
Spence and McLaughlin have said that the city wrongfully placed the clinic under an A-2 process — under which city staff approves the project — instead of a quasi-judicial, C-2 city council-made decision.
The attorneys also said it should be classified as an “essential public facility” that holds “broad public interest.”
The city issued the tribe a building permit on June 29 for the MAT clinic.
In June, judges denied a temporary restraining order and injunction for the tribe’s proposed clinic, and on July 17 Basden permanently dismissed the request.
Tribal attorneys Murphy and LeAnne Bremer of Miller Nash Graham & Dunn requested the dismissal because Basden wrote in his previous ruling that appealing the application “(falls) squarely within the types of decisions covered by (the Land Use Petition Act (LUPA)),” and that the plaintiffs “haven’t exhausted the city’s review processes.”
Tthe project awaits a possible decision from a hearings examiner decision, which may be followed by appeals through the LUPA process.
Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].