Friday, March 8, 2013

Lawyers lock horns at defamation hearing

Judge calls Donoval’s email to Brolin-Ribi ‘extreme’

Express Staff Writer

Top to bottom: Nils Ribi, Jim Donoval & Keith Roark

Tuesday afternoon at Blaine County 5th District Court felt like high noon behind a barn in a Western movie, as a spirited legal duel unfolded at a hearing for a defamation and emotional distress lawsuit filed by Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi and his wife, Patricia Brolin-Ribi, against attorney Jim Donoval. Despite both sides’ vigorous attempts to persuade the judge, he did not rule in either party’s favor at the hearing.

The conflict between the Ribis and Donoval—who is the husband and former attorney of former City Administrator Sharon Hammer—erupted in November 2011 when Hammer filed a lawsuit against the city, Ribi and other defendants alleging verbal harassment of her by Ribi. Hammer dropped the suit in January 2012 and the city terminated her contract shortly thereafter. In June, Hammer filed another lawsuit against the city, Ribi and other defendants claiming that her termination was illegal.

Shortly before Hammer filed the November 2011 lawsuit, Donoval sent two written communications to city officials advising them of Hammer’s plans to file it. Donoval also sent a communication to Brolin-Ribi advising her of Hammer’s plans.

The Ribis filed their suit against Donoval in December 2011, alleging that Donoval had included defamatory statements about Ribi’s mental and emotional health in the first two communications and statements that were intentionally intended to emotionally distress Brolin-Ribi in the third communication.

In January 2012, Donoval filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that, as an attorney, he is immune from a defamation action for submitting pre-litigation correspondence to prospective defendants. Donoval also filed counterclaims against Ribi and the Ribis’ attorney, Keith Roark, contending that Ribi and Roark had defamed Donoval and intentionally caused him emotional distress themselves in correspondences to City Council members.

In June, Judge Jonathan Brody ruled in Donoval’s favor on Ribi’s defamation complaint, stating that Donoval was indeed protected as an attorney. However, he did not rule on Brolin-Ribi’s emotional distress complaint nor on Donoval’s counterclaims, though Donoval withdrew his claim against Roark shortly after.

At the hearing Tuesday, Donoval argued that Brody should rule in his favor as he did with the defamation complaints because, as an attorney, he has “absolute immunity” in sending pre-litigation correspondence.

“Either I have absolute immunity on everything or not at all,” Donoval said.

He also said Brolin-Ribi exposed herself to the correspondence voluntarily because it was attached to an email he sent her.

“If you get an email with a virus and you open the attachment, it’s your fault you get the virus,” he said.

Donoval also said that if he set a gun down in front of Brolin-Ribi and warned her that it’s dangerous, it wouldn’t be his fault if she shot herself. 

“The attachments weren’t forced upon her,” he said. “She had the option not to open them.”

Brody said the email does not specifically warn against opening any attachments and that he was not sure the gun analogy is a good example. 

Donoval also said he sent the email to Brolin-Ribi not as Ribi’s wife, but as a potential attorney for Ribi. He said regardless of the letter’s content, he had the “right” to send it to her because she is an attorney and might be involved in the case.

“She’s not an eggshell plaintiff,” he said. “She’s, if anything, a steel plaintiff. She’s the lawyer wife of a politician.”

Roark requested a jury trial because the language in the letter might be interpreted differently by more than one “reasonable mind.” He argued that Donoval sent the email in an attempt to appeal emotionally to Brolin-Ribi. He said Donoval did not write the correspondence on his professional letterhead and that its first sentence does not establish Donoval’s position as Hammer’s attorney, but instead refers to a friendship between Donoval and Brolin-Ribi.

“I am writing to you with sadness because of mine and Sharon’s sincere feelings of respect and friendship for you,” the first sentence of the email states.

Roark said that in the email, Donoval threatened to file the November 2011 lawsuit if Ribi did not resign from the council. Roark said Donoval also threatened to provide the suit’s complaint to several media outlets, including the Idaho Mountain Express, if Ribi did not resign. Roark said the email was sent by Donoval to use Brolin-Ribi as a “vessel” to get Ribi to resign and that “that’s not OK.”

Roark also said attorneys don’t give up their rights as citizens when they pass the bar exam. He said they are not immune to emotional distress and should be protected from it like any other person.

“Donoval’s insinuations are an insult to himself and his profession,” he said.

Donoval said he sent the email and the other two communications in an attempt to protect Hammer, his client, from Ribi, that he had every right to do so and that he’d send the letter again “a hundred times.”

Brody called the letter “extreme,” but said he will take the arguments under consideration and issue a written decision, likely within 30 days.

Brennan Rego:

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