A $25 million lawsuit brought by Tom Paul against the city of Sunnyside was dismissed by a federal judge late last week.
Chief United States District Court Judge Lonny R. Suko ruled that the suit against the city of Sunnyside, former Sunnyside Mayor Ed Prilucik, current Sunnyside Mayor Paul Garcia, city council members Theresa Hancock and Jim Restucci, along with former Sunnyside City Manager Robert Stockwell and former Sunnyside City Attorney Mark Kunkler, lacked legal merit.
In his lawsuit Paul alleged deprivation of substantive due process rights under the fifth and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution, violation of his first amendment right of free speech, deprivation of substantive due process rights by violation of equal protection law and conspiracy to deprive him of equal protection.
The case stems from a billboard Paul had on his property along South First Street in Sunnyside. During a storm in late 2004 it was blown down and he was soon issued a conditional use permit to build another commercial billboard from the city's board of adjustment, a permit that was opposed by city staff.
Staff appealed to the board of adjustment to revoke the permit but was denied. About this time Paul began putting up signs on his property along South First Street expressing political views concerning his displeasure with certain city employees and officials.
In January of 2005 the Sunnyside City Council voted to reverse the board of adjustment's decision to issue Paul the permit. Paul then took action by filing an action against the city in Superior Court.
Soon Paul was charged with violating city ordinances. The infractions dealt with a business sign and the fact that he had too much square footage on his other signs lambasting city officials.
Paul claims the city made a deal with him. He said he was told if he covered up the signs the city would issue him his conditional use permit and drop the charges pending against him.
"The only thing I changed was the content of the signs," he said.
Paul claims the city was only prosecuting him because of what he had on his signs. He never changed the square footage of his signs, just what was written on them. Because of this he said his free speech rights were violated.
Paul said this was just one example of how his rights were violated.
But Judge Suko agreed with city officials and determined Paul's claims lacked legal merit and that the actions of the city officials were permissible under established law.
Paul said he was surprised by the ruling.
"Oh yeah, it totally caught me off guard," he said. "I figured there was no way a federal judge would make a summary judgment that there was no violation of my civil rights."
Sunnyside Interim City Manager Jim Bridges said the city is happy with the finding. He added that he hopes the city can now put this long running dispute behind them and focus their attention on matters that are of greater importance to all of the residents of the city of Sunnyside.
But that might have to wait awhile. Paul said he plans on appealing Judge Suko's decision and has instructed his attorney to pursue an appeal. Paul claims rulings by Suko taken to appeal have been overturned 25 percent of the time.
The city of Sunnyside is represented by Brian Christensen of Moberg & Associates in Ephrata and Paul is represented by Michael B. Gillett in Seattle.