The former owners of a Main Street building filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that the city of Mitchell took ownership of the building through threats and conspiracy that violated their civil rights.
Janice and Ronald Christensen are named as plaintiffs in the federal case individually, as Western on Main LLC and as Crafty Fox LLC and are requesting more than $500,000 in damages from the city and the Mitchell Area Development Corporation.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of the city of Mitchell threatening its own lawsuit against the Christensens. At its most recent meeting on Nov. 4, the City Council discussed taking legal action against the Christensens to enforce the agreement made in July, though the alleged breach of the agreement has not been specified.
City Attorney Justin Johnson told The Daily Republic on Friday morning that the city will respond to the Christensen's claim and will likely file a counterclaim in the same lawsuit, rather than filing a separate case.
The Christensens previously managed and ran The Crafty Fox, an arts and crafts store located on the first floor of 223 N. Main St. Crafty Fox LLC operated the store, and Western on Main LLC owned the building. Both LLCs are comprised only of the Christensens.
On March 19, the city filed a nuisance enforcement action against Western on Main in Davison County's magistrate court, alleging the condition of the roof and windows were a public nuisance. According to the complaint, the city used the action to threaten the possibility of arrest, jail time and fines, putting the Christensens in fear.
The Mitchell City Council approved an agreement in July to purchase the building from the Christensens for $1 with the intention of making repairs for approximately $150,000 and selling the building afterward. The agreement allowed the Christensens until Oct. 15 to find another buyer. When that date passed, the city transferred ownership of the building to the MADC.
The complaint alleges the city's plan throughout the course of events that ended with The Crafty Fox closing its doors was to get the building title and transfer ownership and a gift of $150,000 for repairs to the MADC. Sections of the complaint argue that "the aforementioned 'nuisance enforcement' action was brought for the improper purpose of harassing and intimidating" the Christensens and was "merely a ruse designed by Defendant City in order to coerce Plaintiff Western on Main, LLC, to surrender ownership of the building to Defendant City for inadequate, insufficient and merely nominal consideration."
The federal case makes seven allegations against the city of Mitchell, two of which are also brought against the MADC, and requests more than $500,000 in damages between those counts.
According to the complaint, the city and the MADC conspired together to obtain ownership of the building, depriving Janice Christensen of her ownership. The complaint asserts that conspiracy filed the civil rights of Christensen, who as a female small business owner is part of a protected class.
Two other counts allege that the city's actions deprived the Christensens of their Fifth Amendment right to own property and that the city violated federal and state statutes by taking private property from an owner for a public purpose without giving the owner "just compensation." For the first three counts in the complaint, the Christensens are requesting a total of $170,290 — the building's current assessed value — or another amount proven to be the building's fair market value, minus the $1 the city paid.
The Christensens also argue in the complaint that the city used threats of arrest and jail time to forcibly eject them from the building and are requesting twice the amount awarded for the first three counts as compensation for the alleged forcible objection.
The complaint requests additional amounts to be determined at trial to compensate for insecurity felt as a result of the defendants' actions, profits that could have been expected from the Christensens' store and emotional distress.
Jim Taylor, the Mitchell attorney representing the Christensens, declined to comment on the case Friday morning, stating that the pleadings speak for themselves.
The Christensens' case was filed one day after demolition began on another Main Street building the city acquired in a settlement with the owner earlier this year. The teardown of the buildings at 301 and 305 N. Main St. began Wednesday, after the MADC took ownership of those buildings via the city in August.