Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sun Valley foes have day in court

Judge’s decision could take a month


By REBECCA MEANY
Express Staff Writer

Barbs, jabs and complaints about adherence to procedural rules and professional standards marked a court hearing between a Sun Valley city councilman and an attorney who is married to a former city administrator. Councilman Nils Ribi's attorney, Keith Roark, squared off with attorney Jim Donoval in a motion for summary judgment hearing before Judge Jon Brody in 5th District Court Friday.

Donoval filed the motion in response to a defamation lawsuit Ribi filed against him in December.

Roark complained of what he described as Donoval's "willy-nilly application" of rules, while Donoval repeatedly reiterated his right to protect his client, Sharon Hammer.

Ribi sued Donoval on Dec. 30, alleging that Donoval made defamatory statements about Ribi's mental and emotional health and purported misconduct as a councilman. Donoval filed a counterclaim to that suit in January.

Although the lawsuit dates back to late December, its origins are earlier. Hammer, former Sun Valley city administrator, sued the city in November, claiming Ribi harassed her over the course of several years. When she complained to then-Mayor Wayne Willich, she said Ribi tried to retaliate against her and have her removed from her job. She dropped the suit in January.

In the weeks leading up to that suit's filing, Donoval sent letters to Sun Valley elected officials as well as a letter to Ribi's wife—letters Donoval said were legitimate pre-litigation communications serving to inform parties of what might arise in a lawsuit.

Donoval argued that, as an attorney, he was within his right to send the letters, believed the statements about Ribi to be true and took precautions to limit the distribution of the letters to certain recipients.

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"I have a right to protect my client," he said.

Donoval further stated that Roark was the one who gave the alleged defamatory statements a wider audience by including them in court documents.

In addition, Donoval said that as a councilman and a public figure, Ribi has the burden of proving that Donoval meant actual malice by making such statements.

Roark not only dismissed Donoval's arguments that he acted in earnest, he said that if the judge accepted them, the implications to the practice of law and its perception among the public would be "devastating and pernicious."

He said Donoval was trying to "take refuge" in privileges granted to attorneys during the litigation process.

"It's a junkyard dog privilege," Roark said.

He also claimed Donoval tried to force Ribi to step down from the council through "distasteful, disgusting, despicable" statements backed by a "clear, absolute transparent threat" of public humiliation.

For making those statements with ill intent, Roark argued, Donoval must be held accountable.

The judge will take the arguments and related affidavits under consideration and issue a written decision, likely within 30 days.

Rebecca Meany: rmeany@mtexpress.com




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