City's attorney moves Opus suit into federal court

Friday, August 22, 2014 | 10:25 p.m. CDT; updated 12:02 a.m. CDT, Saturday, August 23, 2014

COLUMBIA — Legal maneuvering in the Opus case continued Friday as attorney Christopher Rackers, who is defending the city of Columbia in a civil rights lawsuit related to the Opus Development Co.'s proposed student apartment project, moved the litigation to federal court.

On Thursday, Rackers moved the case from Boone County Circuit Court to the United States District Court, Western District of Missouri, Central Division in Jefferson City, according to court documents. The notice of removal said the lawsuit falls under federal jurisdiction because the plaintiffs are alleging a violation of civil rights.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey. On Friday evening, Laughrey extended by 10 days a temporary restraining order issued by Boone County Circuit Judge Christine Carpenter that prohibits the city from issuing permits that Opus needs to facilitate construction. That order had been due to expire at the end of the day Monday, according to court documents.

The restraining order "does not apply to emergency actions necessary for the safety of persons and preservation of property, " according to court documents filed Friday afternoon.

Crews at the Opus site, on the north side of Locust Street between Seventh and Eighth streets downtown, have continued this week to remove materials from the interiors and roofs of the buildings it plans to demolish.

Carpenter granted the first temporary restraining order Aug. 13 in response to a lawsuit filed Aug. 12 by attorney Jeremy Root on behalf of plaintiffs Betty Wilson and Michael MacMann.

MacMann and Wilson participated in two petition drives aimed at stopping, or at least stalling, Opus' proposed six-story, 259-bed student apartment building, which the company hopes to open in August 2015. They allege the city violated their rights by (a) passing a second development agreement with Opus while the first was the subject of a referendum petition in May and (b) stating on the day the petition against the second agreement was validated that the Opus development would proceed without a development agreement.

The extension of the restraining order came in response to Root's filing of an emergency motion for its continuance and after a teleconference among parties to the lawsuit Friday evening, according to court records.

The case has also been assigned to out-of-court mediation, which is intended to encourage those involved in the lawsuit to resolve their differences before the cost of continued legal action makes settlement difficult.

In his notice of removal, Rackers requested a jury trial "on all issues triable by jury."

Rackers wouldn't talk about the case. In an email to the Missourian, Root said that from a legal perspective he doesn't care whether the case is tried in Boone County or in the U.S. District Court.

"The law is the same and will be applied the same way in either venue," Root said.

Still, Root said, the city action that moved the case to federal court in Jefferson City would make it harder for Columbia residents and members of the press to attend proceedings.

"The City of Columbia has been failing to take the interests of its citizens seriously for a long time," Root said.

Columbia attorney Thomas Harrison filed a motion on Friday to intervene on behalf of Opus Development Co., the project's developers, and HSRE ODC II MIZZOU, LLC, the company that owns the property. He also filed a motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order. Harrison filed but got no rulings on similar motions in Boone County Circuit Court earlier this week.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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