Earlier this month a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an order from a federal district court dismissing claims against Lincoln County and several current and former officers and employees.
The suit, filed by Libby area resident Robert G. Hubbard, Jr., sought more than $1.5 million in damages and fees, stemming from Hubbard’s claim he was the target of a personal vendetta. The suit named Justice of the Peace Jay Sheffield, former Deputy County Attorney Joseph Cik, Lt. Roger Guches and Deputy Travis Smith of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, and Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe in addition to Lincoln County, the Lincoln County Attorney’s Office, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Lincoln County Justice Court #1, the Lincoln County Victim/Witness Department and Lincoln County, Montana.
The saga began in 2010, when Hubbard was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. According to court documents, Hubbard was convicted on the misdemeanor charge following a jury trial in Sheffield’s courtroom. After sentencing, Hubbard appealed the conviction to Montana’s 19th Judicial District Court. During that process he reportedly entered into a plea deal with the county attorney’s office, represented by Cik, which reduced the sentence handed down by Sheffield.
The situation escalated in March 2011, when sheriff’s deputies responded to a domestic violence call at Hubbard’s residence near Libby. After investigating the scene and conferring by phone with Bowe, Guches and Smith arrested Hubbard and charged him with misdemeanor partner or family member assault.
While the assault case was still pending, in July 2011, Hubbard was again arrested by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, this time for allegedly driving with a suspended license. According to court documents, Hubbard reported the problem was the result of an error in the Oregon drivers license system, which he rectified after his release from jail.
In a jury trial before then Justice of the Peace Stormy Langston Sept. 20, 2011, Hubbard was acquitted on the assault charge. Langston took over the case after Sheffield recused himself.
Following the acquittal, Hubbard chose to pursue the matter further. Representing himself, he filed suit against the defendants in United States District Court March 15, 2012. In the suit, Hubbard alleged the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to deprive him of his civil rights.
United States Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch dismissed the case March 31, 2014, citing Hubbard’s failure to provide evidence of his claims during the discovery phase of the suit.
“The court has already provided Hubbard several opportunities to identify proper discovery responses that he provided, and during the March 2, 2013, hearing the court cautioned Hubbard of the consequences of failing to produce responsive discovery information…” Lynch wrote in his order. “Here, since Hubbard failed to provide timely information regarding alleged damages he sustained, he would be precluded from presenting any undisclosed damages information at trial which, in turn, precludes Hubbard from sustaining any of his causes of action. Additionally, absent discovery responses from Hubbard describing evidence of the alleged specific conduct in which defendants engaged in actually fabricating evidence against Hubbard, he cannot sustain his fabrication claims.”
Hubbard disagreed with Lynch’s decision and filed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals May 20, 2015. In the appeal Hubbard claimed his ignorance with regard to legal process should have been overlooked by Lynch, who he also accused of exhibiting bias during the process.
“The reason we are before the Ninth Circuit stems from a district judge who did everything he could to ensure that, despite overwhelming evidence, this case against a governmental unit would not see the light of day in a courtroom,” Hubbard wrote. “As an American citizen, I am supposed to have the same access that a represented party has to the courtroom. Despite my lack of knowledge and skill as an attorney, I’m supposed to be afforded that right. The district court took that right from me after spending two years litigating this case. This is the clearest case of abuse of discretion imaginable.”
The circuit judges disagreed. In a unanimous decision, the panel ruled Hubbard’s case was without merit.
“The district court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing, as a sanction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37, Hubbard’s state law claims against Lincoln County, and his 42 USC 1983 fabrication of evidence claims against Guches and Smith, because Hubbard failed to comply with the court’s instructions and misrepresented his level of compliance with discovery obligations…” the judges wrote. “We reject as without merit Hubbard’s contentions that the local rule prohibiting self-represented litigants from filing electronically violated his due process and equal protection rights, and that the district court improperly granted defendants’ motion in limine.”
Hubbard said he was satisfied with the court’s ruling, as his intent was to call attention to the problem and not to prevail in court.
“Unfortunately, the focus has always been on the ‘lawsuit’ that I filed against them, and not enough focus on their actions that caused the lawsuit in the first place,” Hubbard wrote in an email to The Montanian. “Although I had already successfully defended myself in the original fabricated charges at a jury trial, I still felt it was important for the defendants that acted deliberately and illegally, to be held to account. This lawsuit has done that. In the end I’m extremely happy that I was able to clear my name and expose the defendants for their actions. Six years is a long time to prove a point, but it was well worth it. Out of eight defendants, six of them are no longer with their respective departments due to the lawsuit, and that is satisfaction enough.”
At least two of the defendants were also happy to see the longstanding suit end. Sheriff Roby Bowe said Hubbard’s abuse of the courts was frivolous and shameful.
“It’s a shame that someone will go through all of that hassle and abuse of the courts for a frivolous lawsuit,” he said. “It’s clearly not what the judicial system is about. It’s such a shame that he would push this to advance his agenda. I’m just glad it’s over.”
Former deputy county attorney Joe Cik is one of the defendants who has moved on since the beginning of the saga. He is now a deputy city attorney in Great Falls.
“The Ninth Circuit made a legally sound finding in this matter, “ Cik said. “Additionally, it’s a sad day when a plaintiff has to fabricate discovery to further their own political agenda.”