WatchSonoma Watch

Appellate court rules Santa Rosa must pay $240,000 in legal fees


An appellate court has ruled that Santa Rosa must pay more than $240,000 in legal fees to the attorneys who successfully challenged the constitutionality of a city law imposing a special tax on new developments.

The state Court of Appeal in San Francisco last week rejected the city’s appeal of the fees awarded to the Pacific Legal Foundation by Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Mark Tansil in 2011.

The Sacramento-based public interest law firm represented the Home Builders Association of Northern California Inc. The group claimed the special tax unfairly forced property owners to give up their voting rights in exchange for the right to develop their properties.

The idea for the tax arose as a way to assure new developments paid their fair share of the cost of city services, particularly police and fire protection. The annual tax was to be $430 for new homes and $310 for units in multifamily buildings.

But Tansil agreed with the law’s critics, finding that it “unfairly tampers with the elective process.” He concluded that the attorneys were entitled to recoup their expenses because their lawsuit had “vindicated important constitutional rights that affect the public interest.”

The California private Attorney General statute allows attorneys to recoup their expenses if the lawsuits they bring result in a “significant benefit” to the “general public or a large class of persons.” The statute is meant to encourage the types of cases that might otherwise be cost-prohibitive.

The city argued the case did not benefit the general public, but just those with developable land in the city. It also claimed the attorneys fees were excessive and failed to consider the “extreme dire financial condition” of the city and the fact that “the ultimate costs of the fee award will be paid by . . . taxpayers.”

The court rejected nearly all the city’s arguments. It did, however, reduce the award by $1,800, the amount a foundation attorney claimed for hand-delivering a complaint to the court in Santa Rosa.

City Attorney Caroline Fowler said city officials were “obviously disappointed with the outcome” and would “review the decision in detail and evaluate options going forward.”

Meriem Hubbard, principal attorney with the foundation, said she was pleased but not surprised by the decision. The trial judge had issued an “unusually forceful” ruling that praised the foundation’s work and its right to collect the fees.

“This case resolved an important constitutional issue, which the private attorney general statute was adopted to handle,” Hubbard said.

The city claimed it didn’t expect the foundation to seek attorney fees in the case, and was surprised when it did so just one day before the appeal period closed. The city might have reconsidered its decision not to appeal the case if it had known the amount of attorney fees being sought, Fowler said.

But Paul Beard, the foundation attorney who tried the case, called the city’s claim “bogus.”

“Anyone who has practiced law for more than a year recognizes that the prevailing party will potentially seek fees and costs upon the completion of the case,” Beard said.

The foundation filed its request for fees close to the deadline because such requests take time to document and support, he said.

Hubbard called it “laughable” that the city would be surprised by such a request because it has previously used the same statute to recoup its own legal fees.

In 2008, the city won a judgment against the former owners of the Llano Motel on Santa Rosa Avenue. The alleged den of prostitution was shut down by the city and later razed.

The eventual $1.1 million judgment against the motel owners included $541,611 to compensate the city attorney’s office for the public good it claimed it accomplished in the case.

Hubbard said the city could theoretically appeal to the state Supreme Court, but she doubts it will.

“I’m not sure this decision really raises an issue for that court,” Hubbard said.

With the $1,800 reduction, the award now stands at $241,617, plus 7 percent interest that has been accruing since June of 2011.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.

11 Responses to “Appellate court rules Santa Rosa must pay $240,000 in legal fees”

  1. Snarky says:

    Bear…. as a retired public employee, you are the least able to comment on “fiscal reality” !

    Ahhhhhh ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

    I’ll be you actually believe that your “public safety pension” is something you deserved at age 50. Right?

  2. bear says:

    Nobody here can answer a reasonable question? Who pays for City services in the long run?

    You or somebody else? Or all of us together?

    I have NO respect for people who are divorced from fiscal reality.

  3. Rosa Koire says:

    Judging from some of the comments here there appears to be some confusion about the abuse of the legal system by our city attorney.

    City Attorney Caroline Fowler should be fired. In a clear violation of the Constitution, the City of Santa Rosa imposed a tax on future owners of property without their vote.

    Here’s how it works:
    The developer, in order to get permits to subdivide the land and build the houses, has to agree that the buyers (AS YET UNIDENTIFIED) will pay a higher property tax for services. These unknown and unknowing buyers of these unbuilt houses will now have to pay more every year in property tax than other property owners do. It is a special assessment, but you’re supposed to be able to VOTE for a special assessment.

    In Caroline Fowler’s world, one guy, the developer, can ‘vote’ to have 20 or 30 or 100 property owners pay higher property taxes than everyone else–forever. If he doesn’t do that he can’t get building permits.The Court found this, rightly, to be unconstitutional.

    But the city council voted to allow Caroline Fowler to go ahead and try to get an unconstitutional ruling next time around. The council members who voted for this should either get a remedial course in the Constitution, or be recalled.

    Ms. Fowler should be fired. She is an embarrassment to the citizens of Santa Rosa, but more than that she has cost us a quarter of a million dollars. Let her work (under another attorney) for another year–her salary should be suspended until she has paid this off.

    Is this a dictatorship or is it a representative government?

    For more see Santa Rosa Neighborhood Coalition dot com

  4. Rosa Koire says:

    Caroline Fowler, Santa Rosa City Attorney, should be fired. She pursued this case, clearly unconstitutional, recklessly and aggressively. FIRE CAROLINE FOWLER.

    Fowler should pay this out of her salary. Dock her starting today.

  5. Grapevines says:

    $240,000, two hundred and forty thousand dollars. Let see, that would pay the SMART train’s General Manager for 320 days, or it would pay for the CFO of the SMART train for 480 days.

    Or it could have been used to repair the roads. Anyone know how many potholes can be filled with $240,000??

  6. Snarky says:

    So, the greedy government of Santa Rosa attempted to illegally steal money and got called on their game.

    And, isn’t a Santa Rosa Junior College cop being prosecuted right now for theft of public funds over a years long period of time? Why yes.

    Corruption in Sonoma County… continues.

  7. Steveguy says:

    They tried to make extortion legal and failed.

    Good for the Pacific Legal Foundation !

    Thank you.

  8. Phil Maher says:

    @ Bear

    Oh, you mean like SMART?

  9. brown act Jack says:

    You see there is no reason for not disclosing and discussing the possible and existing suits in the open session as it will very seldom hurt the city’s position in the law suits.

    But, it does allow the CC to hide the information from the public and allow them to make decisions without full disclosure to the public

    Hey, that is what politicians do, isn’t it?

  10. brown act Jack says:

    Now all we have to do is find out how much it cost the city to fight the case!

    It does cost money to fight the claim, and it seems as though most of this stuff was never shown to the public!

    Why?, Because the public never asked for the information! All they ever see is the notice of the closed session, and the CC never discloses what the suit is about, and what the possible repercussions will be!

    And, of course, they are never told what the reasons are for the CA recommending the original action of the taxes, and the original decision to fight the case.

    Now we need a nice exposure of how much money we collected in the taxes, how much we spent collecting the taxes, how much we will have to refund, how much it cost us to fight the original and appeal, and then a nice figure showing the overall cost to the city for taking the first action!

    Ah, I don’t expect to see that very soon!

  11. bear says:

    The law is an ass, and this absolutely proves it.

    How on earth do you expect the City to provide services without revenue? Every damn thing built imposes a an eternal obligation on the City to provide services to developers who collect their unearned profits and run.

    Everything ever built requires unending services. That means either endless tax increases on the public as a whole, or pretty damn small fees on the come-and-go developers.

    This has NOTHING to do with job creation or the fairness of taxes. It has everything to do with the economic rape of citizens by greedy corporate interests.