Both sides claimed victory as a federal judge dismissed the bulk of Margaret “Meg” Hinchey’s retaliation lawsuit against Attorney General Tom Horne and a top aide, but allowed the case to proceed on several allegations.
U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell on Wednesday tossed eight counts in Hinchey’s complaint as well as part of a ninth. The judge ruled that Hinchey could move forward with her lawsuit on claims that Horne and his chief deputy, Rick Bistrow, conspired in a smear campaign against her, defamed her and violated her civil rights. Campbell also ruled that Hinchey can seek to have the state held liable for Bistrow and Horne’s actions.
Despite the rejection of the bulk of Hinchey’s claims, her attorney, Suzanne Dallimore, said the ruling was a victory for her client because the case will now proceed. Dallimore said the kind of “fact pattern” in the case is unusual, and the Campbell’s ruling lays out a road map that shows what kinds of claims are appropriate under the circumstances.
“I think the ruling is very good and sets up the case very nicely for Meg,” Dallimore said. “She can still move forward with the essence of her case.”
Hinchey filed suit in 2012 against Bistrow, Horne and the state, alleging that the attorney general and his top deputy retaliated against her for reporting alleged campaign finance violations by Horne and ally Kathleen Winn to the FBI. Horne has denied the allegations.
Campbell agreed with the defendants’ attorneys that Hinchey stated multiple claims that could not be addressed in court. He threw out allegations that Bistrow and Horne defamed Hinchey by portraying her in a false light; disciplined her without just cause; unlawfully retaliated against her; abused the judicial process; intentionally inflicted emotional distress; invaded her privacy; and were negligent in their duties. He also dismissed a claim that the state violated Hinchey’s federal civil rights, though a similar claim against Bistrow and Horne was not challenged and will be allowed to proceed.
Andrew Federhar, an attorney representing Bistrow and the state, said he was pleased with the judge’s decision to dismiss most of the claims. He emphasized that Campbell’s decision not to dismiss the other claims is not a judgment on their veracity, and means only that Hinchey would win if the claims are actually true.
“As to the remaining issues, she properly stated a claim. That doesn’t mean the claims have any validity,” Federhar said.
Campbell said Hinchey’s lawsuit didn’t specifically identify a conspiracy claim, but clearly alleged that Bistrow and Horne jointly “undertook a smear campaign” against her and tried to destroy her law enforcement career.
“These allegations clearly suggest that Horne and Bistrow acted in concert to injure (the) Plaintiff,” Campbell wrote.
The judge also allowed Hinchey to move forward with claims that Bistrow and Horne defamed her by calling her a liar and a perjurer, and by alleging that she was “an intimate” of Felecia Rotellini, Horne’s Democratic opponent in the 2010 election.
But Campbell dismissed six other defamation claims that alleged Bistrow and Horne told people in the Attorney General’s Office that Hinchey is untrustworthy, is difficult to work with, and is a “political hack” and a “rogue investigator.”
Those statements “reveal nothing more than Horne and Bistrow’s subjective impression of Plaintiff’s credibility and job performance. The statements do not contain factual connotations that are provable,” Campbell wrote.
Campbell said Hinchey’s allegations that Horne removed her preferable work assignments did not constitute retaliation or disciplinary action without just cause.
The case will now move into the discovery phase. The deadline for discovery is May 30, 2014, and Dallimore said she expects a final pretrial conference around August of next year.
Meanwhile, Horne is still awaiting the results of an investigation by the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office into campaign finance allegations that Hinchey turned over to the FBI. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office initiated a civil action against Horne, whom it said illegally coordinated with an independent expenditure campaign in 2010. But a Superior Court judge ruled that MCAO didn’t have the authority to investigate the case, which the Secretary of State’s Office subsequently sent to Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk.