OKLAHOMA CITY – The City of Guthrie spent nearly $3,000 a day of taxpayer funds to defend itself against a lawsuit filed by 10 individuals who objected to municipal measures imposed four and a half months ago in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
McAfee & Taft of Oklahoma City submitted a bill for $23,815 for the law firm’s successful defense of the City of Guthrie, its mayor, city council, the police chief and two city prosecutors, against a lawsuit filed in the U.S. Western District Court in Oklahoma City on April 22.
The litigation arose from a “State of Emergency Declaration” that Mayor Steve Gentling issued on March 16, effective through May 11, and Ordinance #3330 adopted by the City Council on April 6, effective through May 5.
The ordinance directed Guthrie citizens to “shelter in place” and to wear cloth face coverings; closed city properties and facilities; suspended organized gatherings of 10 or more people on public or private property; closed hair and nail salons, barber shops, spas, tattoo parlors, and other businesses except those deemed to be “essential”; etc.
However, the Guthrie City Council held a special meeting April 27 and approved Ordinance #3331, which rescinded the mandatory measures enacted in Ordinance #3330.
Municipal officials instead “strongly recommend” that Guthrie citizens and businesses continue to follow recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on social distancing, wash hands with soap and water, avoid touching one’s face, disinfect frequently used items and surfaces as much as possible, “consider” using face coverings while in public and when using mass transit, stay at home as much as possible, and contact a doctor if you feel sick.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit included Angela F. Miller, Donna J. Wilson, Jackie A. Whitley, Daniel L. Navejas, Heather E. Brown, James P. Nunamaker, Bobby J. Lockhart, Audra M. Lockhart, Vicki L. Jones and Tammie D. Hulsey.
Heather E. Brown is the twin sister of Beth Navejas, wife of Daniel Navejas.
Daniel Navejas is a self-described minister and the leader of the Ekklesia of Oklahoma. The Ekklesia has disrupted GOP politics in Guthrie for years and is causing major internal headaches for state Republicans, from the chairman of the party, David McClain, to Gov. Kevin Stitt and Lt. Governor Matt Pinnell on down, according to sources familiar with the turmoil.
The 10 plaintiffs alleged that Ordinance #3330 impeded their constitutional guarantees of free exercise of religion and the “right of the people peaceably to assemble.” They also claimed the ordinance violated the
Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and its language was “imprecise, ambiguous, and vague.”
Federal District Judge Scott Palk dismissed the lawsuit after just eight days, on April 30.
PLAINTIFFS LACKED LEGAL ‘STANDING’
Judge Palk tossed out the case because the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to bring the lawsuit.
To establish “standing,” a plaintiff must show that he/ she has suffered “an injury in fact,” the judge wrote in his decision. Only one of the plaintiffs “verified the allegations of the complaint.”
The litigants’ complaint contains “only vague and conclusory allegations” about any injury, Palk said. “They are the type of allegations to be ignored by the court in determining whether plausibility has been established.”
For example, the plaintiffs’ assertion that their constitutional right to free exercise of religion was violated doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, the judge indicated.
“[W]holly absent from their allegations are facts to show whether they even hold religious beliefs,” whether those alleged religious beliefs require church attendance, whether they attend church as part of their religious practices, where they attend church and how often church services occur.
“Moreover, there are no allegations that any plaintiff ever attempted to attend church since the enactment of Ordinance 3330,” the jurist wrote.
Further, in alleging that they were denied the “ability to assemble via a church service (drive-in or otherwise),” the plaintiffs failed to offer any facts “to demonstrate any concrete or particularized injury,” Palk wrote.
PLAINTIFFS FAILED TO OFFER PROOF OF ACTUAL HARM
As for their complaint about having to wear face masks when in public, the plaintiffs’ allegations “fail to demonstrate any actions taken by any of them giving rise to actual injury,” the judge noted. The complainants “do not allege any past conduct in which they faced consequences for not wearing a face mask,” nor did they provide any facts “demonstrating future harm through threat of enforcement of the ordinance or otherwise.”
The allegation that Ordinance #3330 violates the Commerce Clause is “speculative and conclusory,” the judge said.
The three non-resident plaintiffs – Whitley, Jones and Nunamaker, who told the court they “visit and/or conduct business in” Guthrie – did not provide “any factual allegations about why they ‘visit’ Guthrie, what business they conduct in Guthrie, how that business has been curtailed by the ordinance, what enforcement actions they have faced or may face as a result of such business, or any other facts to demonstrate injury resulting to them as a result of the ordinance.”
The plaintiffs also alleged that Ordinance #3330 violated provisions of the Oklahoma Constitution and statutory law, particularly a section that spells out the authority of a municipal governing body to enact ordinances. “Plaintiffs allege no facts demonstrating they have been subjected to enforcement of the ordinance, threatened or otherwise,” Palk wrote.
“In sum,” the judge concluded in dismissing their petition, the plaintiffs “have not adequately alleged a plausible claim of injury sufficient to confer standing as to any of their federal causes of action.”
The mayor of Guthrie declined to comment after the ruling.
“The City of Guthrie is very pleased with the Court’s ruling,” Tulsa attorney Jason McVicker of the McAfee & Taft law firm said. “We hope everyone continues to stay safe during this pandemic.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Frank Urbanic of Oklahoma City, also declined to comment about the case.