Missoula County Loses Dunrovin Ranch Case, Judge Declares Charges Were “Frivolous” and “Pursued in Bad Faith”
A stinging decision by District Court Judge Edward McLean found that Missoula County pursued a "frivolous" lawsuit against the owners of the Dunrovin Ranch and acted "in bad faith."
The lawsuit by Missoula County against the Millers (the owners of Dunrovin Ranch) argued that their ranch was too small to be considered a small guest ranch and should be required to cease operation until it pays the same licensing fees and falls under the same oversight as large guest ranches.
The result of the decision is that not only will Dunrovin Ranch not have to cease operation, but that the County must pay the defendant's attorney fees.
The fifteen page decision is rife with tough words for both the Missoula County Attorney's office and the Missoula County Health Department.
McLean's decision indicates that the "Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the County," had a legal duty "to take positive steps to encourage and facilitate the development and success of Montana's small guest ranches." McLean goes on to write that "Missoula County has done nothing to accommodate the success of this small guest ranch [Dunrovin], and in fact has harassed this business since 2010 and continues to do so..."
Aside from using words like "frivolous," and "harassment," the decision also shows concern about possible "misrepresentations to the media," by a Deputy County Attorney who spoke about the threat the ranch was posing to the Bitteroot River. McLean insists that the attorney spoke "without proof and records to back it up." The attorney referred to here is almost certainly James McCubbin, who argued on behalf of the county in court.
Some say that the decision means that the lawsuits between the county and the Millers may not be over. Specifically, the paragraph concerning misrepresentation may open the county up to a possible counter-suit by the Millers to reclaim losses caused by the misrepresentation.
In past legal battles with the county, the Millers went to state legislators in hopes of getting the laws changed that directly impacted their business. Bills carried by state representatives Champ Edmunds and Ellie Hill eventually did become law, allowing for small guest ranches, with between 9 and 24 guests per night, to be exempt from the licensing and oversight required of large guest ranches.
The problem here was that the Miller's ranch only had enough beds for nine guests total and could not possibly average that kind of occupancy due to the fact that they focused on daytime activities. The too-small-to-be-small dilemma was described by both McLean and the prosecuting attorney as both "silly" and "bizarre"
The animosity towards the way Missoula County has handled the Miller's case is bipartisan. Rep. Ellie Hill (D), who carried legislation to help the Miller's situation, derided the county for choosing litigation as it's first course of action.
"That's the power of the government with their free lawyers to go after people," Hill said. "It's outrageous. For a small business like that, to hire lawyers, and all of the time... it's just sad."
"The truth of the matter is they shouldn't have needed [legislative] help, if the government wasn't so overreaching," said Champ Edmunds (R), who also carried legislation on behalf of the Miller's. "It seemed like they had a vendetta against the Millers when they shouldn't have, and they gave the Miller's a 'no-win' situation."