A state appeals court has fined the city of Santa Rosa nearly $40,000 for frivolous legal filings in its effort to preserve the right of bicyclists to ride through a gated community near Oakmont.
The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco issued the sanctions in a case handled by Assistant City Attorney John Fritsch.
The three-judge panel found that Fritsch should have known that his appeal of a previous ruling against the city was baseless, and ordered the city to pay the attorneys' fees of the Villages at Wild Oak Association.
"Based on the record as a whole, including the city's repeated pattern of ignoring or misrepresenting relevant authority, we are persuaded that any reasonable attorney would agree the grounds the city relied upon to advance its appeal completely lacked merit and would not have pursued the appeal," Justice Maria Rivera wrote.
The ruling was applauded by Joseph LaVigna, president of homeowners association for the gated community through which the disputed easement runs, connecting Oakmont to the eastern entrance of Annadel State Park.
"We are grateful that this nearly-two-year detour, which the city insisted upon, has ended," LaVigna said. "We feel vindicated by the Court of Appeals, and – with reimbursement for our defense of its appeal, thanks to the city's improper actions – we look forward to a trial on the merits of both claims."
City Attorney Caroline Fowler said she disagreed with the court's ruling.
"We don't file frivolous appeals," Fowler said. "The language they chose to use is somewhat harsh and I think a mischaracterization."
Santa Rosa sued the association of 61 homes in 2010 after it posted "No trespassing" and "No bicycles" signs along a path through the neighborhood long used by bicyclists and others.
The city, pointing to the resolutions passed by the city approving the subdivision, contends an easement allows bicyclists, pedestrians and horse riders to use the path. The association, citing land records, claims the easement is only for pedestrians and emergency vehicle access. The city says the more restrictive description in land records was an "inadvertent" mistake by city staff more than 30 years ago.
After the city sued, the association counter-sued, filing what is called a cross-complaint claiming damages against the city for allegedly created a nuisance for its homeowners and encouraging bicyclists to trespass on private property.
The city then filed what is known as an "anti-SLAPP motion" seeking dismissal of the association's cross-complaint.
A SLAPP lawsuit, or Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, is a legal action intended "to chill the valid exercise of constitutional rights." State law meant to protect free speech rights allows people to recover their legal fees in defending themselves against such suits.
When the homeowners association counter-sued, the city fired back with the anti-SLAAP motion on the theory that the city was pursuing an "issue of public interest" and it should be protected against such frivolous lawsuits.
Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Elliot Daum ruled against the city in 2011, writing that it had not made "any evidentiary showing whatsoever" that the association's countersuit lacked merit. Daum denied the association's request for attorneys fees, however.
But when the city appealed, the appellate court took a closer look at the city's arguments and found them to be decidedly lacking. The justices seemed particularly troubled by what they called the city's effort to ignore applicable case law. Even after the relevance of one particular case was made clear in briefs and oral argument, "the City stuck to its guns and refused to acknowledge the rule established by the case."