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Protect Our Mountain Environment, Inc. v. District Court In and For Jefferson County

Supreme Court of Colorado

February 21, 1984

PROTECT OUR MOUNTAIN ENVIRONMENT, INC.; Howard Farrand; and William M. Lewis, Petitioners,
v.
The DISTRICT COURT In and For the COUNTY OF JEFFERSON, State of Colorado, and the Honorable Ronald J. Hardesty, one of the Judges thereof, Respondents.

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Plaut/Lipstein/Beckman/P.C., Frank Plaut, Nancy Cohen, Lakewood, for petitioners.

Miller & Leher, Martin P. Miller, Littleton, for respondents.

George W. Pring, Denver, for amici curiae American Civil Liberties Union of Colo., The League of Women Voters of Colo., Colo. Common Cause and Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, Inc.

QUINN, Justice.

In this original proceeding the petitioners, Protect Our Mountain Environment, Inc., Howard Farrand, and William Lewis (collectively POME), challenge a ruling of the Jefferson County District Court denying their motion to dismiss a complaint for damages based on the torts of abuse of process and civil conspiracy filed against them by Gayno, Inc., and Lockport Corporation (collectively Gayno). The motion to dismiss was based on POME's First Amendment right to petition the court for redress of grievances. After the respondent court denied POME's motion, we issued a rule directing the respondent court to show cause why it should not dismiss Gayno's complaint against POME. We make the rule absolute with respect to the order denying the motion to dismiss, and we direct the respondent court to reconsider the motion in accordance with the standard herein set forth.

I.

In June 1977 Gayno filed an application with officials of Jefferson County to obtain the rezoning of 507 acres of land near

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Evergreen, Colorado. [1] If the county approved its application, Gayno planned to construct 465 residential units, a conference center, retail and office space, recreational facilities, an early education center, and over 1700 parking spaces. After giving public notice and conducting public hearings, the Jefferson County Board of County Commissioners (Board) approved Gayno's application on August 14, 1978, and reclassified the 507 acre tract from "Agricultural-Two" to "Planned Development" by amending the Jefferson County zoning map.

On September 12, 1978, POME and nine individuals, pursuant to C.R.C.P. 106, [2] filed an action in the Jefferson County District Court against the Board and Gayno. POME sought to overturn the Board's approval of Gayno's application for rezoning on the ground that the Board had exceeded its jurisdiction and abused its discretion. In its complaint, which consisted of thirteen claims, POME asserted, inter alia, that the Board arbitrarily violated several state statutes by not adequately considering the impact of the development on the region's air quality, highway usage, and wildlife, by failing to ensure that there would be adequate water, fire protection, and sewage systems for the development, and by approving the development despite contrary county land use plan density requirements; POME also claimed that the Board's action constituted illegal spot zoning. [3] In support

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of these assertions, the complaint cited the testimony given before the Board by various state officials responsible for air quality, highways, water, and wildlife, as well as the testimony and letters of numerous water and sanitation experts, and comments and letters submitted to the Board by residents and groups questioning various aspects of the project. The district court ruled against POME on May 9, 1980. POME subsequently appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals which, in an unpublished opinion, affirmed the district court judgment. [4]

On April 1, 1980, Gayno filed a complaint in the Jefferson County District Court against POME and its legal counsel. In its complaint Gayno alleged that POME, knowing its claims were without legal justification, had abused the legal process and caused Gayno economic harm by bringing the C.R.C.P. 106 action, by unreasonably delaying the filing of the administrative record, and by filing numerous baseless motions prior to the entry of judgment. Gayno also asserted that POME, along with the individual plaintiffs in the C.R.C.P. 106 action and POME's legal counsel, had entered into a civil conspiracy to bring a groundless lawsuit against Gayno and had filed the C.R.C.P. 106 action without conducting a reasonable investigation of the facts and law underlying their claims. Asserting that these actions caused it to suffer economic injury because of increases in financing and construction costs, Gayno sought $10,000,000 in compensatory damages and $30,000,000 in exemplary damages.

POME filed a motion to dismiss Gayno's complaint on the ground that POME's commencement of the C.R.C.P. 106 action was a lawful exercise of its First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances. The respondent court, concluding that POME's C.R.C.P. 106 action constituted a "sham" which fell outside the scope of First Amendment protection, denied the motion. In ruling on the motion, the court received no evidence, made no findings, and made its ruling solely on the basis of POME's prior C.R.C.P. 106 complaint and Gayno's pending complaint against POME. POME then sought prohibitory relief in this court, asserting that its legal challenge to the zoning reclassification was constitutionally protected activity and was not subject to the "sham exception" relied on by the respondent court in denying its dismissal motion.

II.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees "the right of the people ... to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Citizen access to the institutions of government constitutes one of the foundations upon which our republican form of government is premised. In a representative democracy government acts on behalf of the people, and effective representation depends to a large extent upon the ability of the people to make their wishes known to governmental officials acting on their behalf. The right to petition has been characterized as one of "the most precious of the liberties safeguarded by the Bill of Rights." United Mine Workers v. Illinois State Bar

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Association, 389 U.S. 217, 222, 88 S.Ct. 353, 356, 19 L.Ed.2d 426, 430 (1967).

"It was not by accident or coincidence that the rights to freedom in speech and press were coupled in a single guaranty with the rights of the people peaceably to assemble and petition for redress of grievances. All these, though not identical, are inseparable." Thomas v. Collins, 323 U.S. 516, 530, 65 S.Ct. 315, 323, 89 L.Ed. 430, 440 (1945).

While the right to petition obviously encompasses activities of a traditionally political nature, its sweep is much broader and ...


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