Scales of justice

HAMILTON - A Hamilton man who claims his family business was run into the ground by an expensive lawsuit has filed an ethics complaint against the state’s political practices commissioner and a Helena attorney.

Jim Olsen, owner of Human Interactive Products, filed the complaint with the Montana Office of Disciplinary Counsel last week.

The complaint claims that Jonathan Motl and Brian Miller filed a lawsuit against his firm that contained false statements. In addition, Olsen said Miller signed a motion that included a statement that he should have known was false.

The subject of the lawsuit was Great Bear Restoration, which operated a nursery growing native plants used both for restoration and resale in retail nurseries. Tim Meikle filed a lawsuit against Olsen and his company over issues including ownership and management of the company.

In the three-year period that it took for the court to dismiss Miekle’s complaint, Olsen said legal fees of more than $154,000 forced him and his family-owned company into bankruptcy.

“Apparently anyone can walk into a court clerk’s office and file a complaint, true or not – then force a small business into bankruptcy before a court can decide the truth of the matter,” Olsen said.

The Montana Office of Disciplinary Counsel was established by the Montana Supreme Court as a comprehensive lawyer regulation system. Its staff investigates and, if need be, prosecutes complaints against lawyers.

On Wednesday, Miller said he had not been contacted about the complaint. Under the process, Miller said he will be contacted only if the counsel’s staff finds the complaint has merit.

“I haven’t seen it,” Miller said. “I’m not going to know anything about it until after the investigatory process is complete.”

During the course of a lawsuit, Miller said it is possible for opposing parties to point out inaccuracies to the judge. If a lawyer makes a false statement in a motion, opposing lawyers can ask the court for sanctions, he said.

“Nothing like that happened in this case,” Miller said.

Even though the issues weren’t brought during the civil matter, Miller said Olsen still has the right to file a complaint at this juncture.

“It’s important that people know that they have the right to file a complaint,” he said. “This is a mechanism for regulating attorneys in this state. It’s a good process to have in place.”

Miller said Motl had very little to do with this case.

“Jonathan (Motl) didn’t do any of the depositions,” Miller said. “I don’t think he ever once communicated with opposing attorneys.”

Olsen said the state needs to do more to protect small businesses from false accusations in civil litigation. Both the Legislature and Montana Supreme Court have published rules requiring lawyers to tell the truth about facts in a case and “diligently investigate” the facts they present.

“It is time these rules were enforced,” Olsen said.

There should be a mechanism in place to move the process forward in a more timely and less expensive fashion, he said.

“Aggressive discovery required us to provide thousands of records, which seemed designed to drive up our costs in a fishing expedition that caught nothing. How many small businesses in Montana could afford these kinds of bills just to clear their name and avoid being ruined?” Olsen said.

“A person accused of a crime gets a quick determination of probable cause. But, for civil litigation, no such protection against false accusations is provided by the state of Montana. This should be fixed,” he said.

Olsen’s company was known for its outreach into the community, which included helping to find a site for Emma’s House, underwriting the Hamilton Performing Arts series for a year, and providing micro-loans to help local businesses. In the last 10 years, the company provided over $4 million in payroll, with over $500,000 in health benefits, $200,000 in paid time off, and $20,000 in child care.

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