Motta v. Granite County Commissioners

Motta v. Granite County Commissioners, 2013 MT 172 (July 2, 2013) (5-0) (Baker, J.)

Issue: (1) Whether Granite County properly enacted the 2011 Georgetown Lake zoning; (2) whether the district court properly determined that Motta was a vexatious litigant; and (3) whether the district court properly awarded attorneys’ fees to the commissioners.

Short Answer: (1) Yes; (2) yes; and (3) yes, except for the fees expended to prove the reasonableness of the fees.

Affirmed in part and reversed in part

Facts: Granite County Commissioners enacted the Georgetown Lake Zoning District and Regulations by resolution in April 2011, at the request of citizens from Georgetown Lake.  Motta sued, asking the court to void the resolution and the zoning. The commissioners answered and counterclaimed, asking the court to declare Motta a “vexatious litigant” because he had sued the county multiple times and abused the judicial system through meritless and frivolous claims.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The court held a hearing on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment, after which it granted the commissioners’ motion and denied Motta’s. The court then held a bench trial on the commissioners’ counterclaim and issued findings and conclusions and an order determining Motta was a vexatious litigant. The order prohibited Motta from filing any more actions against government entities without permission from the court, and ordered Motta to pay the commissioners’ costs and fees in this action. After a hearing, the court entered judgment against Motta in the amount of $16,244.25. Motta appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms on the merits but reverses a portion of the attorneys’ fees.

Reasoning: (1) Motta contends the commissioners’s resolution was not a valid way to enact zoning, because it was not preceded by a petition signed by 60% of the affected property owners. Montana statutes allow local zoning districts to be formed by citizen petition to the county commissioners (“Part 1 zoning”) or directly by the commissioners (“Part 2 zoning”). Motta argues that the procedures for Part 1 zoning were not followed, but does not argue that the commissioners failed to follow the procedures for Part 2 zoning.

(2) The district court ordered by that no documents presented by Motta pro se naming a governmental entity, its employees or agents as a party shall be accepted for filing by any court in the Third Judicial District absent written consent of the district court judge. Motta argues this restriction denies his constitutional right to seek redress of grievances for governmental actions. The Court has previously held that the right to access the state’s legal system is not absolute, and that Article II, Section 16 does not grant a person license to burden the resources of the court with successive claims. ¶ 18. The district court relied on federal law that has developed concerning “vexatious litigants.” The court entered detailed findings of fact regarding the history of this case as well as other court actions filed by Motta before finding Motta was a vexatious litigant. The district court followed the five-part test used in the Ninth Circuit. Its order was a proper exercise of the court’s inherent authority to place reasonable restrictions on access to its resources.

(3) Attorneys’ fees are not part of the costs allowed to a prevailing party unless a district court exercises its equitable power to award fees to make an injured party whole. The district court acted within its equitable powers in ordering Motta to pay the commissioners’ attorneys’ fees as a sanction. The commissioners’ fee request was reasonable, with the exception of fees used to prove the reasonableness of the fees. Such fees are generally not awarded. The amount of $2,001.50 must be deducted from the judgment. In all other respects, the judgment is affirmed.