Hughes v. Lynch, No. 05-535.

Docket NºNo. 05-535.
Citation164 P.3d 913, 2007 MT 177, 338 Mont. 214
Case DateJuly 25, 2007
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Montana
164 P.3d 913
2007 MT 177
338 Mont. 214
Eugene F. HUGHES, Jr., M.D., Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
Laura LYNCH and the State of Montana, Defendants and Respondents.
No. 05-535.
Supreme Court of Montana.
Submitted on Briefs June 7, 2006.
Decided July 25, 2007.

[164 P.3d 915]

For Appellant: James M. Kommers; Kommers Law Firm, Bozeman, Montana.

For Respondents: Timothy Willis McKeon; Anaconda, Montana.

Justice JAMES C. NELSON delivered the Opinion of the Court.


¶ 1 This is an appeal by Eugene F. Hughes, Jr., M.D. ("Hughes") from the order and judgment of the District Court for the Second Judicial District, Silver Bow County, granting summary judgment in favor of Laura Lynch ("Lynch"). We affirm. The dispositive issue on appeal is whether the District Court erred in determining that there were no genuine issues of material fact with respect to Hughes's malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and tortious interference claims.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶ 2 On February 2, 1998, Lynch filed a complaint with the Montana Human Rights Commission ("HRC") alleging unlawful gender discrimination by St. James Community Hospital ("St. James") and Hughes. Lynch subsequently amended her complaint to add an allegation that Hughes's actions had created an extremely hostile workplace. The HRC investigated the complaint. The final report issued by the HRC investigator stated that "the evidence supports that Hughes is an employer within the meaning of the Human Rights Act." The investigator recommended a finding of cause to believe that unlawful sexual harassment and retaliation had occurred.

¶ 3 Based on the investigative report, the case proceeded to a contested case hearing in May 2000. In his final agency decision, the Hearing Examiner stated that Hughes was neither an "employer" nor an "agent" of an employer under the Montana Human Rights Act, and, therefore, that Hughes did not bear an employer's liability for sexual harassment. However, according to the examiner, Hughes's behavior after Lynch filed her complaint constituted illegal retaliation.

¶ 4 Hughes appealed the Hearing Examiner's decision. On June 1, 2001, the Chairman of the HRC issued his order sustaining Hughes's appeal and reversing in part the

164 P.3d 916

Hearing Examiner's decision. Although the Chairman agreed that Hughes was not an employer, he determined that Lynch had not properly alleged retaliation in her complaint to the HRC. Lynch did not appeal from the order of the Chairman of the HRC.

¶ 5 On September 26, 2001, Hughes filed a complaint in the District Court against Lynch. He alleged as follows: first, that Lynch did not have probable cause for commencing and/or continuing the prosecution of her case before the HRC and that she was actuated by malice (the malicious prosecution claim); second, that in filing her complaint with the HRC and obtaining an initial finding of cause, Lynch used the administrative process to accomplish a purpose for which that process was not designed (the abuse of process claim); and third, that Lynch improperly interfered in the contractual and business relationships between Hughes and St. James, the medical staff of St. James, and Hughes's current and prospective patients (the tortious interference claim).1

¶ 6 On July 15, 2004, Lynch filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The District Court granted Lynch's motion and dismissed the case with prejudice on July 21, 2005. On July 28, the court entered judgment, stating that Hughes shall recover nothing from Lynch and, further, that Lynch shall recover costs from Hughes. Hughes appeals from the District Court's order and final judgment.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 7 We review a district court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment de novo, applying the same criteria of M.R. Civ. P. 56 as did the district court. Redies v. Attorneys Liability Protect. Soc., 2007 MT 9, ¶ 26, 335 Mont. 233, ¶ 26, 150 P.3d 930, ¶ 26; Montana-Dak. Util. Co. v. City of Billings, 2003 MT 332, ¶ 6, 318 Mont. 407, ¶ 6, 80 P.3d 1247, ¶ 6. Rule 56(c) provides that a motion for summary judgment "shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." In evaluating a motion for summary judgment, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and all reasonable inferences that might be drawn from the offered evidence should be drawn in favor of the party opposing summary judgment. Redies, ¶ 26. Summary judgment is an extreme remedy that should never be a substitute for a trial on the merits if a controversy exists over a material fact. Montana Metal Buildings, Inc. v. Shapiro, 283 Mont. 471, 474, 942 P.2d 694, 696 (1997).

¶ 8 The party moving for summary judgment has the initial burden of establishing the absence of genuine issues of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Hi-Tech Motors v. Bombardier Motor Corp., 2005 MT 187, ¶ 32, 328 Mont. 66, ¶ 32, 117 P.3d 159, ¶ 32 (citing Arthur v. Pierre Ltd., 2004 MT 303, ¶ 14, 323 Mont. 453, ¶ 14, 100 P.3d 987, ¶ 14). If this burden is met, then the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to establish that a genuine issue of material fact does exist. Hi-Tech Motors, ¶ 32. If the district court determines that no genuine issue of material fact exists, the court then determines whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Hi-Tech Motors, ¶ 32. This determination

164 P.3d 917

is a conclusion of law which we review for correctness. Hi-Tech Motors, ¶ 32.

DISCUSSION

¶ 9 Did the District Court err in determining that there were no genuine issues of material fact with respect to Hughes's malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and tortious interference claims?

¶ 10 In opposition to Lynch's motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment (hereinafter, "summary judgment motion"), Hughes submitted the affidavit of Faye Ronco ("Ronco"), Lynch's co-worker, in which Ronco states that Lynch approached Ronco and said that "a lot of money could be made from this"—an apparent reference to Lynch's complaint filed with the HRC. Hughes asserted that this statement in the Ronco affidavit demonstrated that a genuine issue of material fact existed with regards to each of Hughes's three claims against Lynch. Thus, he maintained that he had "clearly met his burden of coming forward with evidence of a material issue of fact as to whether Laura Lynch was motivated to proceed in response to sexual harassment or in recognition that `a lot of money could be made from this.'" Accordingly, Hughes argued that Lynch's motion should be denied.

¶ 11 On appeal, Hughes sets forth essentially the same arguments that he advanced in the District Court. He argues that he met his burden as the nonmoving party to establish that a genuine issue of material fact exists because the Ronco affidavit demonstrates a factual dispute with respect to each of Hughes's three claims against Lynch, and therefore, that the District Court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Lynch. We will evaluate each claim in turn.

The Malicious Prosecution Claim

¶ 12 Malicious prosecution of a civil suit begins in malice, without probable cause to believe that the action can succeed, and finally ends in failure. See McGuire v. Armitage, 184 Mont. 407, 410, 603 P.2d 253, 255 (1979). In a civil action for malicious prosecution, the plaintiff's burden at trial is to introduce proof sufficient to allow reasonable jurors to find each of the six following elements: (1) a judicial proceeding was commenced and prosecuted against the plaintiff; (2) the defendant was responsible for instigating, prosecuting or continuing such proceeding; (3) there was a lack of probable cause for the defendant's acts; (4) the defendant was actuated by malice; (5) the judicial proceeding terminated favorably for the plaintiff; and (6) the plaintiff suffered damage. Plouffe v. DPHHS, 2002 MT 64, ¶ 16, 309 Mont. 184, ¶ 16, 45 P.3d 10, ¶ 16 (citing Vehrs v. Piquette, 210 Mont. 386, 390, 684 P.2d 476, 478 (1984)). "If one of these elements is not proven by prima facie evidence, judgment as a matter of law may be entered for the defendant." Plouffe, ¶ 16.

¶ 13 In her summary judgment motion, Lynch maintained that there was no genuine issue of material fact with respect to element (3). In this regard, she argued that she had probable cause to believe that Hughes was her employer because she perceived, based on past events in her workplace, that he had the ability and power to supervise and control employees. She also pointed out that the HRC's investigator had determined that Hughes was, in fact, her employer, given his ability to control employee's schedules and influence St. James's management policies. Although the HRC ultimately determined that Hughes did not have such authority, Lynch contended that her genuine belief to the contrary provided sufficient probable cause for her to file her complaint. Further, Lynch noted that the first investigative report filed by the HRC stated that there was probable cause to believe that Hughes had committed sexual harassment and retaliated against her. Finally, Lynch contended that, contrary to Hughes's assertion in his complaint that she continued to prosecute her case after she had reason to believe Hughes was not her employer, her actions before the HRC cannot constitute malicious prosecution because she had probable cause to institute the original proceeding. Therefore, according to Lynch, Hughes could not satisfy element (3), "a lack of probable cause for the defendant's acts."

¶ 14 Lynch also maintained that there was no factual dispute with respect to element

164 P.3d 918

(5)—whether the judicial proceeding terminated in Hughes's...

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36 practice notes
  • Bucy v. Edward Jones & Co., DA 18-0493
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • July 30, 2019
    ...Firefighters Local 521 v. City of Billings , 1999 MT 6, ¶ 31, 293 Mont. 41, 973 P.2d 222 ) (internal citations omitted); Hughes v. Lynch , 2007 MT 177, ¶ 5, n.1, 338 Mont. 214, 164 P.3d 913 ; Johnson v. Tindall , 195 Mont. 165, 169, 635 P.2d 266, 268 (1981) ; Mittelstadt v. Buckingham , 156......
  • Our Lady of the Rockies, Inc. v. Peterson, No. 05-057.
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • April 1, 2008
    ...moving party is or is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law is a legal conclusion, which we review for correctness. Hughes v. Lynch, 2007 MT 177, ¶ 8, 338 Mont. 214, ¶ 8, 164 P.3d 913, ¶ 8; Hi-Tech Motors v. Bombardier Motor Corp., 2005 MT 187, ¶ 32, 328 Mont. 66, ¶ 32, 117 P.3d 159, ......
  • Emmerson v. Walker, Cause No. DV 07-8
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • July 28, 2010
    ...v. Vision Serv. Plan, 2005 MT 232, ¶ 18, 328 Mont. 385, 120 P.3d 402; see also Bolz, 200 Mont. at 295, 651 P.2d at 611; Hughes v. Lynch, 2007 MT 177, ¶ 25, 338 Mont. 214, 164 P.3d 913. We have explained that this test determines whether a party's actions were "improper," a term used by the ......
  • Ammondson v. Northwestern Corp., No. DA 07-0243.
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • October 13, 2009
    ...an ulterior purpose and (2) a willful act in the use of process not proper in the regular conduct of the proceeding." Hughes v. Lynch, 2007 MT 177, ¶ 21, 338 Mont. 214, 164 P.3d 913 (quotation omitted). Furthermore, in order to support an abuse of process claim, the plaintiff must show that......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
37 cases
  • Bucy v. Edward Jones & Co., DA 18-0493
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • July 30, 2019
    ...Firefighters Local 521 v. City of Billings , 1999 MT 6, ¶ 31, 293 Mont. 41, 973 P.2d 222 ) (internal citations omitted); Hughes v. Lynch , 2007 MT 177, ¶ 5, n.1, 338 Mont. 214, 164 P.3d 913 ; Johnson v. Tindall , 195 Mont. 165, 169, 635 P.2d 266, 268 (1981) ; Mittelstadt v. Buckingham , 156......
  • Our Lady of the Rockies, Inc. v. Peterson, No. 05-057.
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • April 1, 2008
    ...moving party is or is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law is a legal conclusion, which we review for correctness. Hughes v. Lynch, 2007 MT 177, ¶ 8, 338 Mont. 214, ¶ 8, 164 P.3d 913, ¶ 8; Hi-Tech Motors v. Bombardier Motor Corp., 2005 MT 187, ¶ 32, 328 Mont. 66, ¶ 32, 117 P.3d 159, ......
  • Emmerson v. Walker, Cause No. DV 07-8
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • July 28, 2010
    ...v. Vision Serv. Plan, 2005 MT 232, ¶ 18, 328 Mont. 385, 120 P.3d 402; see also Bolz, 200 Mont. at 295, 651 P.2d at 611; Hughes v. Lynch, 2007 MT 177, ¶ 25, 338 Mont. 214, 164 P.3d 913. We have explained that this test determines whether a party's actions were "improper," a term used by the ......
  • Ammondson v. Northwestern Corp., No. DA 07-0243.
    • United States
    • Montana United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • October 13, 2009
    ...an ulterior purpose and (2) a willful act in the use of process not proper in the regular conduct of the proceeding." Hughes v. Lynch, 2007 MT 177, ¶ 21, 338 Mont. 214, 164 P.3d 913 (quotation omitted). Furthermore, in order to support an abuse of process claim, the plaintiff must show that......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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