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Lawyer, client hit for $25K sanctions

A restaurant owner and his lawyer have been sanctioned nearly $25,000 by a Rockingham County Circuit judge for filing a suit so vague that the court did not know what relief was requested against which defendants.

The award may be a record for the area, according to several lawyers, though it represented only one-half of the defendants’ attorney’s fees.

The case is Dove v. Dayton Town Council (VLW 096-8-182), with an opinion by Judge Porter R. Graves Jr.

The lead defense counsel, Donald D. Litten of Harrisonburg, who represented the town of Dayton, explained that the restaurant owner’s problems began when the town started considering whether to rezone his business property as residential. The town was conducting a comprehensive rezoning, Litten said.

But the restaurant owner “claimed people were conspiring against him to put him out of business,” Litten said.

He added that the town ultimately decided not to rezone the restaurant owner’s property.

But the plaintiff sued 30 or 31 defendants in chancery, seeking injunctions: Among other things, he wanted to stop the town council from discussing his business.

The various defendants included members of the town council individually, the town attorney, the planning commission, the police department and a newspaper reporter who had written articles about the zoning dispute, Litten said.

The judge granted defendants’ demurrer and gave plaintiff leave to amend his bill of complaint to provide greater specificity.

The plaintiff responded by filing an original motion for judgment at law, rather than an amended bill of complaint in equity, according to co-counsel for the town and an attorney for other defendants, Steven M. Blatt of Harrisonburg. Yet the plaintiff continued to seek injunctive relief.

This error in refiling the complaint may have been one of the plaintiff’s most egregious, Blatt said.

Far-flung pleadings

Assessing sanctions, the court noted that even if the bill had been “confessed” and the defendant raised no defense, the court would not know what to decree.

While the purpose of pleadings is to clarify what the litigation concerns, “the bill of complaint in the present case had a completely adverse effect. The more I read it, the more confused I became,” Graves wrote.

The judge also commented that “counsel is always best advised to do research before suit is filed,” rather than offering to research a point when the judge asks for authority.

The judge considered the fees accumulated thus far for services rendered by 11 different attorneys, which totalled $49,641.98. Finding the fees reasonable, the judge awarded 50 percent of them to the defendants as sanctions.

The sanctions are to be paid 60 percent by the plaintiff and 40 percent by his lawyer, Charles A. Fincher of Leesburg.

As a basis for the sanctions, the judge relied on both Virginia Code § 8.01-271.1, which applies to general litigation, and § 18.2-500, which speaks directly to civil conspiracy allegations.

Blatt indicated that the sanctions award, to his knowledge, was the largest ever given in that circuit and perhaps in that region of the state.

The attorney representing the lawyer at the sanctions hearing, James A. Klenkar of Winchester, could not be reached for comment.

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