But Lithia prevailed in the argument. Montana's attorney general ruled that Chrysler failed to prove that another Chrysler dealership was warranted in Billings.
Rimrock and Chrysler appealed to the Motor Vehicle Division. Their arguments have been heard, and Zabawa and Soares have been waiting since last year for a decision.
Lithia, of Medford, Ore., referred questions about the situation to its attorney, Robert Weller of Abbott Nicholson in Detroit. Weller declined to discuss details of the pending case beyond saying: "Lithia's position is that they're entitled to the protection of the Montana franchise law, and that is how they are proceeding."
The legal sticking point is essentially this: Lithia, which owns 96 stores in 12 states, argues that Chrysler is wrong to put another dealership into its market. Billings has a population of 106,954, according to the 2012 census. Lithia says putting Rimrock's Chrysler-Jeep store less than a mile away, as Zabawa has proposed, would overcrowd the market, cannibalizing Lithia's business.
The counterargument from Chrysler and Rimrock is that reopening Rimrock would stimulate the Billings market for the Chrysler brands, giving them more "shelf space" as they compete there against mainly General Motors and Ford Motor Co.
For Lithia, the local business landscape has changed. Five years ago, Lithia and Rimrock operated as friendly neighbors just two blocks apart. Lithia's store was solely Dodge; Rimrock was a Chrysler-Jeep dealership. A second Jeep store, owned by Bill Underriner, who later became the 2012 chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association, also operated in the market.
After Chrysler terminated Rimrock and Underriner in Billings, Lithia was awarded the Chrysler and Jeep franchises; it now sells both brands from one location. So putting Zabawa's store back in Billings would not return the market to the way it was.
Zabawa estimates that he has lost more than $3 million in the events surrounding his Chrysler-Jeep store since 2009, including $2 million he is out on the real estate alone, plus the write-down in value of the vehicles he surrendered and the discounted sell-off of parts. He has not estimated the resulting income loss.
He also has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on legal fees to get back the dealership.
"In the beginning, my partner, John, asked me if I really wanted to do all this," Zabawa recalls. "He and I have been together since 1987, when we met in our first auto sales training class in Phoenix. He said: 'Isn't this just throwing good money after bad? Shouldn't we just move on?'
"And I disagreed. I said: 'It just isn't right, and we have to stand up for it.'
"I really can't be angry at anyone for what's happened -- not just here but around the country," says Zabawa, a father of seven who calls himself a conservative Republican. "People are doing what they thought they had to do.
"I don't hold it against Lithia for doing what they did," he says of the protest that has held Rimrock's Chrysler-Jeep store in limbo. "They're a publicly traded company and they have to look out for their business interests. They have shareholders they have to report to. I forgive them. Although, I can't help thinking that had they been a local dealer they probably wouldn't have protested."
Zabawa says Chrysler recently tried to resolve the standoff by offering Rimrock an alternative Chrysler franchise in Laramie, Wyo., 423 miles away.
"I don't want to be in Wyoming," Zabawa says. "My home and my family are in Montana."