CCDC files to dismiss countersuit
SPIRIT LAKE — A group of Dickinson County citizens says a lawsuit filed against them is "frivolous on its face," and hopes a district court judge will have the case dismissed.
Local businessman Leo "Butch" Parks Jr. sued a group calling itself the Concerned Citizens of Dickinson County in February, claiming a pair of lawsuits the group filed against the county caused — and will cause — him to suffer at least $3.5 million in damages.
The Concerned Citizens group on Monday responded to Parks' suit with both a motion to dismiss and a motion for sanctions against Parks and his attorney. The CCDC's initial lawsuits took issue with the county's handling of the approval process of East Loch Estates — a proposed 66-acre housing development near East Lake Okoboji's Chalstrom Beach. Parks owns the land, and claims the CCDC filed suit to intentionally interfere with the sale and financially harm him. His suit called the CCDC's previous actions as meritless, false and an intentional misuse of the legal system to delay the sale of land.
Jamie Hunter, attorney for the CCDC, took a similar tone in describing Parks' suit.
"The right to criticize government action on matters of public importance lies at the heart of the First Amendment, and this lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to stifle legitimate objections to the county's rezoning process," Hunter said.
Parks' attorney Phil Redenbaugh said he will be taking a closer look at the legal points on which the CCDC's claims are based. He said there is a 10-day window in which to respond to the motions.
"We'll be filing a resistance very soon," Redenbaugh said.
Monday's filings state the CCDC's claims against the county and its boards are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, and civil liability cannot be imposed on a party for exercising that right. The suit calls Parks' filing a "backdoor attempt" to defend the county and litigate on its behalf, as well as harass and intimidate members of the CCDC.
Though Parks' filing noted the CCDC's individual members were unknown, it said the suit will be amended when the individual names become known. The CCDC's motion for sanctions called this notation a threat, meant to chill free speech. The CCDC's motion indicates existing laws would not allow Parks to sue unknown members of a group. The motion also cites Iowa Code, claiming members of a 501(b) nonprofit group cannot be held individually liable.
The CCDC is requesting the district court order monetary sanctions, in addition to court costs, against both Parks and his attorney.
The county boards named in the CCDC's filings met with council last Tuesday to discuss the lawsuits. Assistant Dickinson County Attorney Lonnie Saunders said the county prepared emails, documents and exhibits used during the East Loch Estates presentations and submitted them to the court as part of the CCDC's writ filing. Saunders said the writ has essentially put the cases on a fast track, but no court date has been scheduled. He said he was hopeful the issue could be resolved in a matter of months. However, he stressed the schedule hinges on the court's timeframe.
As of yet, the county has not been informed the CCDC intends to take depositions from any members involved in the suit.
"Typically, these writ acts are done without depositions," Saunders said.
Hunter was unsure whether depositions would be requested, adding the information provided by the county will take considerable time to sort through.
Saunders stressed the county did not and should not discuss Parks' filing with council but, with so many parties involved in the East Loch Estates issue, he admitted there was potential for the verdict of one case to affect the other.
"I certainly think one decision may impact the other, but to what extent would depend on the decision," he said.
Hunter was more confident in the CCDC's motions.
"We've asserted that Parks' lawsuit is completely frivolous," she said. "It should not have any impact on the outcome of CCDC's cases with the county."