Friday, July 6, 2012

Judge knocks down Ribiís defamation suit

Says attorneyís allegations are protected by privilege

Express Staff Writer

Nils Ribi

Fifth District Judge Jonathan Brody on Monday, June 25, tossed out the defamation claims in a lawsuit filed by Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi against former City Administrator Sharon Hammer's former attorney Jim Donoval.

Ribi had filed the complaint over Donoval's written statements to city officials in November contending that Ribi suffered from mental instability. In granting a motion for partial summary judgment, Brody ruled that the statements were protected as pre-litigation communication.

"The public policy supporting the broad litigation privilege is to free attorneys to zealously advocate for their clients without fear of subsequent litigation. ... ," Brody wrote in his decision.

Brody acknowledged that the statements may not be true, but ruled that the litigation privilege provides absolute protection.

In an interview, Donoval—who is Hammer's husband—said his only intent in writing the letters was to competently represent Hammer.

"I had the right to question Mr. Ribi's emotional well-being," he said. "We were concerned about Sharon's safety around Mr. Ribi."

Ribi's attorney, Keith Roark, said he did not disagree with Brody's legal reasoning, but added, "I think we're all amazed that attorneys get to do the kind of wild things that Mr. Donoval did and get away with it."

Roark said Ribi would continue to pursue claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution contained in the suit.

A conflict between Hammer and the city erupted publicly last November, when she filed a lawsuit against the city, Ribi, Councilman Bob Youngman and City Attorney Adam King. In the suit, she alleged that Ribi repeatedly harassed her and, when she complained to then-Mayor Wayne Willich, Ribi sought to have her terminated from her position. She also alleged that Youngman and King colluded in that effort, and that the city should have done more to protect her from Ribi.

She sued under the Idaho Protection of Public Employees Act. Hammer dropped her suit against the city and the other defendants on Jan. 12, while retaining the right to refile. Later that month, the city terminated her employment contract.

Last week, Hammer filed a lawsuit against city officials, claiming that her termination was illegal. She also filed a $3 million notice of tort claim against the city, alleging assault, defamation and wrongful termination.

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