Lawyers and Money
Fees disputed in public records case.
Thursday, December 16, 2004
A court hearing last week did not resolve the dispute between public interest attorney Michael Stamp and the city of Monterey in a case that gets at issues of democracy and public access to government business. And money.
For more than an hour last Wednesday, Dec. 8, Superior Court Judge Susan Dauphiné heard arguments from lawyer Michael Stamp and his attorney Joel Franklin, and also from Monterey assistant city attorney Deborah Mall’s attorney, Michael Masuda. At issue: how much do Stamp and his attorney deserve to be paid by the city in their successful case over public records, tied to the Ocean View Plaza project on Cannery Row.
Stamp and Franklin contend that they deserve to be paid $700 an hour for Stamp’s work on a 15-month case to win release of public records from the city attorney’s office. Stamp wants roughly $200,000 in taxpayer money for a case fought in the interest of taxpayers. He’s unapologetic.
“I am not embarrassed or chagrined about seeking fees,” he says.
The case stems from a lawsuit brought originally by a citizens group against the city of Monterey regarding the development of the Cannery Row multi-use retail and residential center, Ocean View Plaza, a project that has been controversial for years. The citizens’ group contended that the project’s environmental studies were not up to snuff, and in September 2003 a judge ordered that they be revised. After the studies were redone, the Monterey City Council subsequently approved the project, which is now up for review with the California Coastal Commission.
But in the course of reviewing documents in the case, Stamp and his client Pat Bernardi noticed, at the bottom of some city reports, the billing code for the law firm Lombardo & Gilles.
Previously, Bernardi and Stamp had prevailed in a 2000 case against the county, in which the same law firm was found to have “ghost-written” documents later appearing as the work of Monterey County staff.
Believing there to be a similar pattern now with the city of Monterey, Stamp and Bernardi sought correspondence between the city attorney’s office and the law firm. After months of court wrangling, the information was finally released after Stamp subpoenaed the law firm.
In a Public Records Act case, attorney’s fees are due in
the event of a victory. Since Stamp and Bernardi prevailed—in
a case they contend revealed a secretive government—he’s
entitled to be paid by the city. Now it’s a question of how
— — —
In court last week, Masuda fought against the doubling of the standard $350 per hour fee that Stamp charges.
In rewarding fees, the winning side is allowed to ask for fees multiplied by some factor, in this case a factor of two. Masuda told Judge Dauphiné that he didn’t see any reason that Stamp deserved double pay, and asked for his detailed billing records. Stamp did not offer up his records right away but the judge ordered him to produce them. They were filed in court on Dec. 10.
Dauphiné asked that the lawyers not come back and argue the matter again, and that they instead just file written arguments. She wanted a detailed breakdown of the time spent on the case.
“The last thing I want is to increase time and attorney’s fees in this case,” she told the lawyers.
Stamp says that due to the nature of the Public Records Act, there is no government agency to enforce it. As it’s written, it’s up to citizen activists, like his client Pat Bernardi, to bring cases against the government. The District Attorney cannot sue a government for records.
“Citizens are the only way to enforce the law,” he says.
As a general rule, Stamp says he cuts five percent off his hours when submitting a bill. In this case, he says he shaved 274 hours worth of work down to 260 hours. He feels he’s entitled to be paid well for his work.
“You only get paid if you win” he said. “You don’t get paid for bringing lousy lawsuits.”
Deborah Mall, who will serve as interim city attorney following the retirement of current city attorney Bill Conners at the end of the year, contends that she’s done nothing wrong. She has seen the billing records submitted by Stamp and says they lack the detail usually required by law firms.
She described them as “bulk” records as opposed to some records which break billing down to increments of a tenth of an hour.
“It’s surprising he’d be representing a client and not have time sheets down to [one-tenth],” she said.
Mall says she would have gladly supplied the records requested by Stamp more than a year ago if he would have waived his fees.
“He refused to waive his attorney fees,” she says. “You have to really weigh that in the Public Records Act. There’s a lot of room for abuse in there. I think the legislature needs to look at this and close the loopholes.”
Stamp points the finger right back, saying the city chose to pursue the case and could have backed off at any point.
Instead, he says, there’s a deterrent effect when the city loses a case over release of public records, then faces a $200,000 payout in public money at a time when budgets are tight.
“That has a ripple effect on all the other cities in the area,” he says. “They don’t want to be on the front page next time.”
Worse, Stamp says the case points to secrecy in government that takes efforts like his to reveal.
“The issue is public access to information,” he says. “I believe in this case there was a cover-up.”