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Tom Paul files lawsuit asking for $25 million

Just a couple of months after he and the city of Sunnyside settled a long-standing boundary dispute, Prosser contractor Tom Paul was at it again last week, filing a suit in federal court claiming the city had infringed on his civil rights.

Besides the city of Sunnyside, the suit names former city manager Bob Stockwell, City Attorney Mark Kunkler, public works official Mike Storms, former city council member and mayor Ed Prilucik and current city council members Theresa Hancock, Jim Restucci and Paul Garcia, who is also now the city's mayor.

Paul wants $2.5 million because he said he was denied his civil rights in the following instances: denial of equal protection of the laws, deprivation of due process rights, conspiracy and interference with freedom of speech.

The case in essence stems from a flap over a billboard and then political signs that Paul, a Prosser contractor, had posted on a strip of land he owns along South First Street. The city at one time took down the signs because it said they encroached on the city right-of-way. The four council members named in the suit were the ones voting in a 4-3 decision to revoke Paul's conditional use permit for the billboard.

"The city appointed themselves as judge and handled the matter. The dispute was supposed to go to superior court," Paul said this morning.

Paul contends Sunnyside officials also conspired against him to make it more expensive for him to work in the city. He says he no longer handles construction projects in the city limits.

Paul said the whole situation has made him ill and that he has required medical attention because of the city's actions. He is seeking $22.8 million in punitive damages.

Kunkler said this morning that Paul's claims are without merit.

"The city's stance is that we see no violation whatsoever," Kunkler said. He added that Paul's civil rights claims are troubling because of the cost to Sunnyside taxpayers in "dealing with these kinds of allegations."

Kunkler expects the city's insurer, Canfield and Associates, will handle Paul's claims for damages. All parties named should be covered, he said, but those named may also retain their own attorneys, as well.

One of the insurer's first actions, after interviewing those named in the suit, may be to have the case dismissed due to lack of merit.

Kunkler also said he is troubled by Paul's actions because he thought the city was done in its legal tussle with him.

A potential trouble spot for the city is that its insurer typically does not cover punitive damages, which means if a jury finds for Paul, the city and those named could be responsible.

As for the four council members named, Kunkler said it's frustrating four council members to be named "based on the way they vote." He added, "It's a different approach to attack council members. In Washington state, council acts as a body, not as individuals."

The civil rights claims may have perhaps been a surprise for the city and those named, but Paul said this morning that he wanted to pursue the case two years ago but that his previous attorney, J.J. Sandlin, failed to file the claim.

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