Governor Pledges to Dismiss Lawsuits Filed Against Flathead Businesses

Accused of violating a statewide health directive, five businesses lodged counterclaims against the state last year

By Andy Viano
Attorney Bruce Allen Fredrickson represents the defense in a hearing brought by Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services asking Flathead County District Court to force five Flathead County business to comply with the state’s COVID-19 directives on Nov. 12, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Gov. Greg Gianforte announced during his first State of the State address that his administration would seek to dismiss lawsuits filed under the previous administration against five Flathead County businesses that were accused of violating a statewide health directive.

In a joint statement from the three attorneys representing the five businesses — Remington Bar and Casino, Your Lucky Turn Casino, Ferndale Market, Scotty’s Bar and Casino, and Sykes Diner and Mercantile — they voiced their appreciation for the governor’s personal attention to the case.

“We all agree the prior administration should not have filed these frivolous lawsuits which resulted in particular hardship to our clients,” Bruce Fredrickson, Angela LeDuc and Connor Walker wrote. “We will continue to work with the administration to address all issues.”

The governor’s Thursday night announcement and subsequent comments from the three attorneys do not address pending counterclaims that were filed less than a week after Flathead County District Court Judge Dan Wilson denied an effort by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) to grant a temporary injunction against the businesses. At the time, DPHHS alleged the businesses were not making “reasonable efforts” to enforce a directive that requires employees and customers to wear masks or other face coverings inside those establishments.

Attorneys for the five businesses referred back to their original statement when asked for clarification on the countersuits but did acknowledge they have been in direct contact with the governor’s administration. Gov. Gianforte did not directly respond to a question about the countersuits at a press conference on Friday, only saying that he looked forward to “getting (the cases) resolved.”

“It’s been a tough year for small business and we don’t need the government piling on,” he said. “I’ve directed our general counsel to dismiss those cases.”

In the counterclaims, filed on Nov. 18, the businesses are seeking reimbursement of legal fees and damages from the state. Attorneys first asked Judge Wilson to make such an award when the temporary injunction was denied at a hearing on Nov. 12, saying the lawsuit was brought in late October for “ulterior reasons” and accusing former Gov. Steve Bullock of doing so to garner attention during his failed campaign for U.S. Senate. Wilson declined to accept the defendants’ claims at that time but warned that he was likely to award legal fees if DPHHS continued to pursue the case.

Robert Allison replaced Wilson as the presiding judge on Nov. 24. The case remains active and open as of Jan. 29 but has not proceeded beyond the initial hearing.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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