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Jeb Bladine: Expensive lessons in complex litigation

When reporting on complex litigation, we realize there’s a lot of lawyering between headlines. Most of that legal maneuvering goes unreported to the general public, but reading the court documents can be like auditing a law school course.

Two local lawsuits prove the point.

Six months ago, The Falls Event Center sued two local businessmen for $25 million, subsequently reduced to $20 million. TFEC’s claims against J.W. Millegan and Paul Peterson are nowhere near adjudication, but a counterclaim by defendants has a pending date with the Oregon Court of Appeals.

The TFEC action, maintain defendants, was a SLAPP — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — intended to muzzle their free speech rights. Attorneys exchanged scholarly legal responses discussing statutes, case law and burdens of proof; the judge quickly dismissed the counterclaim, without comment.

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Jeb Bladine is president and publisher of the News-Register.

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Defendants bought additional time by appealing the dismissal of their counterclaim. It reminded me of an old joke about the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer, quoted here from a legal news website in Australia: “A bad lawyer can let a case drag out for several years. A good lawyer can make it last even longer.”

I have no idea which side has retained the best attorneys, but for a First Amendment junkie like me, the legal views about SLAPP in this case were fascinating reading. Now, we wait for review by the Court of Appeals.

Next, the 33-month saga of theft charges by Dr. James Nelson against former employees Linda Hixson and Sherry McMullen. Criminal charges instigated by the local dentist were dismissed, so he filed a civil lawsuit in March 2016. Three weeks ago, a jury didn’t simply dismiss all Nelson’s claims, it also awarded the two women combined damages of $800,000 for Nelson’s “malicious prosecution” of the earlier criminal case.

Case closed? Not so fast, as attorney-filed documents keep increasing. Nelson challenged the monetary award; seeks to seal his wife’s court testimony; and requested legal fees for one aspect of the case. Hixson/McMullen vigorously oppose those motions -- the next hearing is April 16.

Awards of legal fees remain unresolved, and Dr. Nelson still could ask the judge to set aside the jury’s ruling on malicious prosecution. I wouldn’t be surprised if that rare ruling ends up at the Court of Appeals.

These two cases are vastly different, but equally riveting. Their common thread, perhaps, is that learning the law in court can be a very expensive lesson.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at jbladine@newsregister.com or 503-687-1223.

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