Judge denies legal fees stemming from MAT lawsuit

A Superior Court judge ruled Friday 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 two motions heard together in civil court proceedings in Port Angeles on Aug. 21, 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 medication-assisted treatment (MAT) facility.

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 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, there should be a significant burden of proof 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” in fact. The lawsuit was spurred, McLaughlin said, from 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 wrong determination,” Spence said. “If the (hearing) examiner agrees with us, the tribe has to start from round 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 trying to challenge the city’s codes and procedures — an effort that could affect other city activities such as building permits, other licenses, permits for city building usage and the like.

“It’s a legitimate constitution 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.”

MAT clinic background

Representatives with Save Our Sequim and Gibson filed an injunction on May 5 to halt construction and the application for the proposed 16,806-square-foot facility that treats patients with Opioid Use Disorder.

Spence and McLaughlin stated previously 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 stated other issues with the proposal including that it should be classified as an “essential public facility” and holds “broad public interest.”

Barry Berezowsky, Sequim’s director of community development, said 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.

Tribe 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.”

The decision is another proverbial hurdle cleared for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s proposed MAT clinic, but the project still awaits a possible decision from a hearings examiner, along with possible appeals through the LUPA process.