A lawsuit that accused a prominent defense attorney, a state judge, a county sheriff and others of conspiring to have a bailiff fired has been thrown out of court.
Debra Spoons filed the action last year, alleging a "pervasive conspiracy" to remove her from her courthouse security job because of a confrontation she had with attorney Ronald J. Yengich.But at a hearing Wednesday afternoon, Senior Judge Douglas L. Cornaby concluded there was no evidence to support the allegations and granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment.
Spoons herself did not attend the hearing, and her Louisiana attorney, Richard Ducote, arrived a half hour late, after the judge had already revoked his Utah privileges. In effect, Spoons was left without a lawyer, which is how the unusual case began.
"It was an absolutely baseless lawsuit from the start," Yengich's attorney, Stephen J. Trayner, said following the hearing. "There was nothing to support it except her own speculation."
A former Seattle police officer, Spoons was a probationary employee with the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office when she was fired on Aug. 21, 1996. She had been assigned to the old 3rd District Courthouse, 250 E. 400 South, where her duties included operating the security checkpoints.
According to Spoons, her troubles began after she accused Yengich of swatting her buttocks as he entered the building on May 31, 1996. She said Yengich had engaged in a pattern of harassing bailiffs who required him to comply with security procedures.
Yengich adamantly denied the allegation, and prosecutors who reviewed the evidence declined to file criminal charges.
In her lawsuit, Spoons said Yengich complained to then-presiding 3rd District Judge Leslie Lewis, who, Spoons said, together with the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, orchestrated her termination. The claims against Lewis were dismissed earlier this year.
Originally filed without the assistance of a lawyer, Spoons' lawsuit sought $4 million in damages. Spoons later obtained the services of an attorney, Duncan Murray, but he withdrew from the case earlier this year. The case was then taken by Ducote, a self-described "itinerant" attorney.
At the hearing Wednesday, Ducote said Spoons' case was "exactly the type" that required an out-of-town lawyer because it challenged high-profile and powerful individuals.
Cornaby, who served as an active judge for 31 years before taking senior status in 1992, was skeptical. "I haven't noticed any hesitation by Utah counsel to sue anybody when a case has merit," he said.
And the judge "reluctantly" agreed with Trayner that Ducote's busy, state-hopping schedule, unfamiliarity with Utah rules of procedure and failure to meet filing obligations required the revocation of his Utah privileges.
With Ducote relegated to observer status and Spoons not present to argue her own case, Trayner moved for summary judgment based on Spoons' failure to show a "genuine issue of material fact." In other words, Spoons hadn't met her legal burden of presenting evidence to support her allegations.
Trayner cited the "undisputed testimony" of all of the officers in the chain of command that was involved in Spoons' termination. Her immediate supervisor, Sgt. Stephen G. Chard, said in his affidavit that Spoons' job performance deteriorated over time. She became "too aggressive with the public" and uncooperative, Chard's affidavit said.
Trayner said the "final straw" came on Aug. 15, 1996, when Chard directed Spoons to leave the courthouse open beyond the usual hour to accommodate several late trials. Instead, Spoons called Chard's supervisor, Lt. Larry Marx, to complain about the decision.
Based on Spoons' "defiance, rigidity and inability to follow orders," Chard concluded she didn't have the temperament for the job. Marx agreed, saying in his affidavit that the decision to fire Spoons was based on her insubordination, poor job performance and inability to get along with others.
Sheriff Aaron Kennard said in his affidavit that while he didn't get directly involved in the termination, he understood the command reasons behind it had to do with Spoons' "poor people skills."
Other than Spoons' own affidavit, there was no testimony from anyone indicating that Yengich was even remotely involved in the termination decision, Trayner said.
"Ms. Spoons may have all kinds of speculation but the reasons for her dismissal are wholly unrelated to the acts of Mr. Yengich," he added. "There has to be a showing of intentional interference; it's not enough to just say you can't believe what they (all the other witnesses) are saying."
And even if Yengich had complained about Spoons, he had the same right as anyone in the public to do so, Trayner added.
Trayner also put the court on notice that he may seek sanctions against Spoons and her lawyer for filing a lawsuit without merit. He said after the hearing that the allegations stretched credulity.
The notion that Yengich would directly or indirectly try to influence Kennard to fire someone and that Kennard would be influenced by Yengich is "laughable," Trayner said. "Everyone who knows them knows how ridiculous that is."