Court grants motion to dismiss lawsuit against Caribou and councilor

3 years ago

CARIBOU, Maine — Putting to rest months of controversy, the Caribou Superior Court on April 22 granted the city of Caribou’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by two residents claiming a councilor’s status violated the city charter.

Residents Gary Aiken and Christine Lister filed the lawsuit against the city and councilor Doug Morrell, which claimed that the city charter was violated by allowing Morrell to sit on the council.

Both Aiken and Lister were involved in a committee to recall councilor Morrell in late 2020. The suit was filed shortly after that petition failed to garner enough signatures.

The suit alleges that the city violated its charter by swearing in Morrell in 2020, whose taxes were not paid by Dec. 31, 2019. They allege that the charter’s rules for forfeiture for unpaid taxes are clear. 

Section 2.01(b) of the charter states that “only qualified voters of the city, who are current for all personal and real property taxes due to the city on or before December 31st of the previous year, shall be eligible to hold the office of Councilor.” Morrell’s taxes were paid on Jan. 2, just before he was formally sworn in. 

The city’s motion to dismiss argued that Morrell met this requirement because his taxes were technically paid before he was officially sworn in as a seated councilor.

The court first looked over the city’s claim that plaintiffs had no standing to file the lawsuit. 

While Aiken gave a presentation at an Oct. 5, 2020 council meeting with his concerns about Morrell’s taxes and potential forfeiture, the court determined that Lister had no standing as the complaint does not include her involvement in any of the proceedings.

In order to have a standing, the court also said the plaintiffs need to demonstrate that they suffered a particularized injury.

The plaintiffs argued that they and Caribou taxpayers at large suffered the deprivation of their right to have “legally eligible and qualified councilors” representing them, a deprivation of their right to have provisions of the charter enacted when his eligibility was in question, as well as harm from Morrell’s “continuing unlawful occupation” on the council and his “unlawful participation in voting upon and conduct of city business,” which they stated should be rendered null. 

The complaint contained three counts: a request for declaratory judgment, a request for mandamus relief, and an appeal of the city’s failure to pursue the charter’s forfeiture proceedings.

“AIken’s complaint concedes that all of these injuries were suffered not only by him, but by the ‘resident taxpayer citizens of the City of Caribou,’” the court’s final decision stated. “He has therefore pleaded no more than a generalized injury to the public at large and fails to satisfy the second prong of the standing analysis for his 80B appeal.”

The court also granted the motion to dismiss on the remaining two counts, concluding that “Aiken and Lister have failed to allege a particularized harm and therefore have no standing to bring their independent claims.”