Gilbert Mayor Sued In Federal And State Courts For Kicking Residents Out Of Meeting

brigette peterson
Gilbert Mayor Brigette Peterson

Three Gilbert residents have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Gilbert Mayor Brigette Peterson and the other council members stemming from the mayor’s order to a police officer to remove the three from the town council’s meeting of Sept. 22, 2022.

Jurors could end up awarding far more than the mere $1 that Ryan Handelsman, Dr. Brandon Ryff, and Joanne Terry offered to accept last year to settle the dispute if Peterson received remedial training on the importance of the First Amendment and apologized, along with the council, for shutting down the trio’s quiet, free speech activity.

At the heart of the conflict is Peterson’s decision that Handelsman, Ryff, and Terry were being disruptive by silently standing or sitting while holding signs critical of the mayor. Numerous signs -including ones that stated “Stop Lying”- were on display throughout the council chambers, but only the three residents were ordered to leave.

An attorney for the trio served the mayor and town officials with a notice of claim as required by state law before a lawsuit can be initiated. When the parties failed to reach a settlement, the federal lawsuit was filed in U.S District Court last week, alleging First Amendment violations pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

“This case involves the Mayor of Gilbert and the Town of Gilbert retaliating against their political opponents -the Plaintiffs- by squelching their right to free speech and assembly, their right to petition public officials for a redress of grievances, due process rights and rights to equal protection under the law,” the lawsuit states.

A second lawsuit was filed on Ryff’s behalf last week in Maricopa County Superior Court and is assigned to Judge Randall Warner. It alleges claims under Arizona law based on “additional retaliatory attacks that have defamed him and tortiously invaded his privacy and harmed his dentistry business,” the lawsuit states.

Much of the Ryff-only lawsuit centers on the town’s decision to spend taxpayer money to retain the Phoenix-based Sims Mackin Law Firm to review the September 2022 sign incident. The firm’s report concluded that Peterson’s actions “were required by the Town Code, the Ethics Policy, and State Law.”

But while the report includes multiple references to Peterson’s explanation to the attorney of her actions, the three residents say the attorneys “never made a single attempt to interview” them or give them an opportunity to submit a written statement.”

Ryff contends the mayor then used the results of the review to disseminate false information which harmed his personal and professional reputation, the individual lawsuit alleges.

“These false statements caused to be released by the Mayor resulted in patients of Dr. Ryff and his dental practice making comments to him about how they read in the news about his allegedly disruptive, bullying behavior. Dr. Ryff’s dental practice has suffered a decline in revenue due to the Defendants’ actions,” the lawsuit states.

According to Ryff, he hopes to see the mayor forced to testify under oath about her actions during and after the Sept. 22 meeting, including about comments she made to media outlets.

“The mayor targeting and violating the constitutional rights of residents she dislikes, for expressing a viewpoint with which she disagrees, is obviously a problem—a problem the mayor could easily have resolved with just a simple apology,” Ryff said after the lawsuits were served. “Unfortunately, while we spend our money defending our First Amendment rights, the mayor will be spending the taxpayers’ money defending her ego.”

The federal lawsuit naming all three residents as plaintiffs has been assigned to U.S. District Senior Judge Susan Bolton. The three defendant still seek only $1 as nominal damages for themselves in the federal case. However, they also seek compensatory damages to be determined at trial, as well as punitive damages.

Federal jurors in Arizona may, but are not required to, award punitive damages “to punish a defendant and to deter similar acts in the future.” Such damages cannot be found against a municipality or county, but can be available “against governmental employees acting in their individual capacities.”

According to the jury instructions that would likely be given, punitive damages can only be awarded if jurors find the defendant’s conduct harmed the plaintiff and the conduct “was malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.”

The jury instructions define conduct as being malicious “if it is accompanied by ill will, or spite, or if it is for the purpose of injuring the plaintiff.”

The two lawsuits filed last week may not be the last legal consequences of Peterson’s removal order last September.

Arizona Daily Independent has learned there is additional litigation contemplated against the town for the alleged failure of officials to promptly comply with Arizona’s Public Record Law in response to a records request made more than eight months ago by Judicial Watch.

The request sought copies of all records related to the Gilbert Police Department’s compliance with Peterson’s order to remove Handelsman, Ryff, and Terry from the public meeting. It also sought all policies and training materials related to the presence of law enforcement officers at town council meetings.

In addition, Judicial Watch has announced plans to seek all records -including invoicing and payments- connected with the town’s contract with Sims Mackin to review the September 2022 incident.

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