SPOKANE — The man who launched an expensive pandemic-era recall attempt on three Central Valley school board members has appealed his pricey court sanctions stemming from the effort that a judge called “improper.”
The drawn-out legal proceedings lasted years and cost the district nearly $175,000 in attorney fees. For filing the “bad faith” petition, a Spokane County Superior Court judge sanctioned Rob Linebarger, of Spokane Valley, and his counsel $30,000. Linebarger is required to pay $22,500 of that, with the rest owed by his counsel.
Paul Clay, who represented the school board members during the initial proceedings, said in his 30 years of work as an attorney, he rarely sees judges impose sanctions. When they do, it’s usually to the tune of $3,000, he said.
“I’ve never seen one that high,” he said. “It’s kind of a big deal to me, it should tell you why the judge imposed a $30,000 penalty; that just doesn’t happen very often.”
Linebarger said he wasn’t aware he could be sanctioned.
“Had I known this was a possibility, we probably wouldn’t have done it,” he said.
The basis for the appeal includes constitutional questions. Linebarger and his counsel cited the freedom of speech granted by the First Amendment, as well as sections in the state Constitution that protect a citizen’s right to petition to recall elected officials.
In 2021, Linebarger filed the petition on behalf of the Central Valley School District Concerned Parents Coalition, a group of around 300 family members of students and staff frustrated with what Linebarger called poor communication from the district. The targets of the petition were three school board members up for re-election this November: Debra Long, Cindy McMullen and Keith Clark.
The petitions laid out about a dozen charges against each member, but were largely centered around statewide mask and vaccine mandates in public schools. It alleged the three members acted out of their authority in enforcing the mandate and failed to document the negative implications of school children wearing masks. The petition also claimed Long didn’t reside within Central Valley’s bounds and is therefore not qualified to serve on the board.
Later that year, a superior court judge dismissed all charges, calling them factually insufficient, politically motivated and frivolous. The judge determined the allegations were made in bad faith to “bully” school board members who didn’t ideologically align with Linebarger, a precinct committee officer for the Spokane GOP.
“The court further finds that Petitioner filed the recall petition for the improper purpose of bullying the Board Members into taking a political position contrary to the law,” court ruling documents said.
Court sanctions are awarded when parties fail to comply with court procedure or follow the rules, Clay said.
Clay said the sanctions were meant to act as a deterrent to avoid more “frivolous” suits. He called the petition a waste of time and taxpayer money. All told, the proceedings up until May 2022 cost the district almost $175,000 in attorneys fees. Clay said he provided more counseling following that date, and the bill may be closer to $200,000.
“It’s tough to stomach what’s happening here. These school board members are folks I’ve had the pleasure of representing for over 25 years,” Clay said. “They’re good people who never should have been subjected to this frivolous bullying. There should be accountability.”
Austin Hatcher, the attorney representing Linebarger in the appeal, said the sanctions did more than just deter, but had a “freezing” effect on other parties exercising their constitutional rights.
“One of the chilling effects of this sanction is that no citizen will ever risk the financial ruin, possibly, of filing a petition,” Linebarger said. “No attorney is going to take a recall case, period. They’re not going to risk it. This ruling has pretty much removed that from a citizen’s tool box.”
“We’re really just seeking to protect constitutional rights and hopefully vindicate the right to bring a recall petition and not get frozen out of the process,” Hatcher said.