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Strand loses Cass jail lawsuit

Cass County officials didn't break the law when they decided to demolish the old jail and sheriff's residence in 2003 without a public vote, a judge ruled.

Cass County officials didn't break the law when they decided to demolish the old jail and sheriff's residence in 2003 without a public vote, a judge ruled.

In an opinion made public Thursday, Judge Mikal Simonson answered the lone remaining question in the legal battle between Fargo resident John Strand and the county. Simonson concluded the demolition was not part of a larger construction project to expand the Cass County Courthouse.

Strand contended it was. If so, the total cost would have exceeded the county's funds, constituting an extraordinary expenditure that required a public vote.

A jury has already settled competing claims that arose out of Strand's original lawsuit.

The county wanted to recover damages of up to $39,000 for a six-day demolition delay caused by Strand's lawsuit.


Strand and his attorneys sought damages from the counterclaim, which they called a threat to the First Amendment right of accessing the courts. They said the county acted to punish Strand and said the counterclaim would chill future activism by him and others.

After a five-day trial, jurors ruled against both claims, awarding damages to no one.

The entire case proved to be costly for both sides.

Strand said he hasn't tallied his legal bills, but estimated them at more than $100,000. Cass County, which billed its costs to the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund, incurred about $60,000 in legal fees, said Todd Haggart, an attorney with Vogel Law Firm who represented the county.

Each side accused the other of making the court case more expensive than it needed to be.

Haggart said Strand rejected a deal last year that would have brought both parties to the same spot where they now find themselves. In the offer, another Vogel attorney proposed each side drop its lawsuit without money changing hands, Haggart said.

"They spent one hundred grand to try to prove their point and they couldn't," Haggart said. "It's a result that Strand could have had a year ago."

But Strand said he and his "Save the Jail" citizens group truly thought the county was breaking the law by not putting the project to a vote. It was a question of fact that deserved and needed to be answered, he said.


"We wouldn't have advanced our question unless we really strongly felt it was a legitimate one," he said.

A judge could also have settled the question sooner if the county had waited on the demolition for a ruling, Strand said. John Goff, one of his attorneys, said the vote issue could have been settled within a year if the county had not filed its countersuit.

County officials said they sought the counterclaim to protect taxpayers. Commission Chairman Darrell Vanyo said the county spent most of its legal fees defending against Strand's initial lawsuit, not in pursuing the counterclaim.

Goff disagreed with Vanyo's claim. "That's just blatantly not true," he said.

Goff said the counterclaim made the case much more complicated and labor-intensive.

Bob Harms, Strand's co-counsel, said his group will meet to decide if they want to appeal, seek attorney fees from the county or let the case end. Strand must prove the county's counterclaim was frivolous or not in good faith to collect fees on it.

As for the county, its officials can now resume planning for a courthouse addition, Vanyo said.

No buildings have been built on the west side of the Cass County Courthouse, where the old jail and sheriff's residence once stood.


The county entered into a contract with Foss Associates in 2001 to begin plans for an addition, but the commission didn't give the architect approval to advance beyond the schematic design phase. Commissioners said only 15 percent of the $382,500 contract was paid.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538

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