Sunday, August 30, 2015

Lawsuit against Many of Us Crashes and Burns

Some readers will remember Rick Seeberger. Sheriff Todd Garrison was so charmed by Seeberger that he placed him high in DASO, though Seeberger had never been a cop and had neither experience nor a degree in law enforcement. DASO Deputies reported disastrous results. Morale seemed to go through the floor. The basement floor. Eventually Seeberger departed, after a public controversy.

Seeberger then sued pretty much everyone he could think of,: several DASO Deputies, County Commissioners and officials, Channel 7, this newspaper, and me. His claims were nonsense. The absence of any cognizable legal claims made one wonder about his intentions: did he think someone would pay him a bunch of money to avoid court? Did he just seek revenge on everyone who didn't share Mr. Seeberger's high opinion of Mr. Seeberger?

Any lawyer could see that he hadn't fashioned any claims a competent court would grant relief on. Suing the newspaper on a cause available only to employees? Suing a private company on a cause you can only use against public actors? Sue for defamation when the law's clear that opinions can't constitute defamation?

U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory Wormuth has tossed the whole case – and ordered Seeberger to come in and “show cause why the Court should not find that the copy of Plaintiff Rick Seeberger’s EEOC Charge of Discrimination submitted by Plaintiffs . . . was fraudulently altered from what was actually filed with the EEOC, and, if so, why the Court should not impose sanctions under Rule 11 or for contempt of court.” That is, did Seeberger fraudulently change a key document, by checking off a critical box not checked on the original? Oops!

Judge Wormuth's 70-page opinion was detailed and well-reasoned. He looked into and cited important details a lot of judges would have missed. He understood the situation and acted appropriately.

I feel two ways about that.

[Note added Saturday, 5 September: U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory Wormuth took testimony and heard arguments for nearly three hours yesterday afternoon on whether or not to hold Rick Seeberger in contempt of court and/or sanction him under Rule 11 for fraudulently proffering a document to the court.  EEOC officials testified to their procedures, and that their document file on Seeberger did not include a complaint form with the "Religion" box checked.  Seeberger (who had earlier filed a Complaint not checking the Religion box) testified that he'd brought such a form, along with two copies of one without the Religion box checked, to the EEOC on a certain date and had given both versions to the clerk, though without saying anything about changing or amending his claim.  He denied simply checking the box afterward to help his position in the litigation.  Wormuth made clear he had extreme difficulty crediting Seeberger's account, but took the matter under advisement.  The County has asked him to order Seeberger to defray some of the County's attorney fees, and Judge Wormuth urged Seeberger to review that request and opine on whether or not the numbers are reasonable if he ultimately decided against Seeberger on the document fraud issue.   Notably, he did not discuss Seeberger's right against self-incrimination when putting Seeberger under oath, which seemed to signal he will not treat this as criminal contempt.  Because Seeberger has 14 days to respond to the County's attorney-fees motion, it appears likely Judge Wormuth will not rule on the contempt issue for another two weeks or more.]

Obviously I'm gratified. I took great care to write my columns accurately. I always do; and I was saying some strong things. I also believed Seeberger might sue anything that moved. He had threatened me, warning that inaccuracies would have serious consequences. His voice and facial expression seemed meant to frighten me. I'm gratified that Judge Wormuth took the time to parse out the facts, the columns, Seeberger's pleadings, and the law, then write a clear, strong opinion.

But I'm chagrined that his Honor had to do so, that the public had to pay for his time doing so, and that various parties had to spend significant sums on lawyers to fight a complaint that (in my opinion) never should have been filed. I'm chagrined that some fine DASO Deputies who had suffered through Seeberger's bizarre reign then had to worry about whether some crazy quirk in the legal system or a biased jury might someday require them to pay Seeberger. Everyone knew there was no way that should happen; but it's no fun to be defendant. We've all seen or heard of crazy results in courts.

Seeberger is interesting. To me, he seemed a mixture of con man, evangelist, businessman, and self-help guru. But he didn't belong as DASO Chief of Staff. When I was writing columns questioning Garrison's hiring of Seeberger, DASO personnel would materialize out of the woodwork wherever I went to say, “Thank you!” Sadly, he cost us a lot, in money paid to him, money spent rebutting frivolous allegations, and DASO morale. 
Now we can hope we're finished with him, although I do wonder how Friday's hearing will go.
If he's guilty, I hope he pays for it. Thereafter, I wish him well in his future endeavors.
[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 30 August and will appear on the KRWG-TV website shortly.]

[Sometimes the law does work.  We saw it in the lawsuit regarding the municipal recall effort here.  Now we've seen it in the Seeberger lawsuit.   I hope Seeberger chooses to forget seeking revenge against our County, which paid him a lot of money, and turn his talents to good works as he continues his career.
Still, the title the Sun-News gave the column could be a little optimistic: "An end to the sad, strange DASO Seeberger saga."   It captures the tone of all that's happened, but I think some state court litigation between Seeberger and some of the deputies may linger; theoretically, some defendants could sue Seeberger for abuse of process or malicious prosecution; and Seeberger could appeal, although appellate courts are likely to be less patient with causes of action that come nowhere near the legal mark, and could order him to pay some defendants' fees responding to what they might well term a frivolous appeal.  (As one example of the nature of the claims, I just glanced again at the opinion and realized Seeberger had a cause of action in there for "Cruel and Unusual Punishment.  The opinion briefly quoted from long-standing precedent that “The Eighth Amendment, for its part, can only be invoked by persons who have been convicted of crimes” and noted that since Seeberger had never been convicted or incarcerated, he didn't qualify.  The opinion had similarly quick and cogent answers to most of Seeberger's claims.  In my view, most if not all of those claims could not have been brought in good conscience if someone had researched them even briefly.)
I hope it's over, for Seeberger's sake as much as everyone else's. ]

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