The city of Sacramento is on the hook for nearly $800,000 in fees for attorneys who represented homeless people in a lawsuit charging police with violating their constitutional rights by failing to protect their belongings.
The class-action lawsuit, which played out in May 2011 in federal court in Sacramento, already has cost the city $796,050 in payments to those who lost personal property, including tents, lanterns and prescription medications, during raids on illegal tent camps beginning in 2005.
Sacramento County originally was part of the civil lawsuit but settled its portion in 2009 with a payment of $488,000 and the development of elaborate policies for tagging and storing items seized during sweeps.
Like the county, the city has agreed to new rules on handling property that police seize while enforcing an ordinance that prohibits camping in undesignated places for longer than 24 hours.
Civil rights attorneys led by Mark Merin and Cathleen Williams had requested $1.8 million in fees they said they incurred for the lawsuit, which took more than two years to resolve. Merin and Williams, who are considered among the best lawyers in their field and are married to each other, calculated their fees based on a $550 hourly rate.
Fees for another lawyer in the case, Ronald Blubaugh, were calculated at $350 per hour.
But U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr., in an order issued Friday, said those rates were excessive, considering fees typically collected by experienced lawyers in civil rights cases in Sacramento.
He said Williams and Merin, whom he called "one of the most experienced and successful civil rights attorneys" in the area, merit compensation of $400 hourly.
He said Blubaugh, a former administrative law judge who has offered volunteer legal help to needy people since retiring in 2003, should receive $260 an hour for his work on the case.
England also reduced the number of hours that the lawyers claimed to have put into the case, noting that Merin's law office failed to keep "contemporaneous" billing records. Rather, the plaintiffs "reconstructed" them, and "the reliability of such reconstructed billing records is inherently suspect," the judge wrote.
He also rejected billings for such activities as press conferences, preparing press releases and an appearance on a radio show.
After various deductions, England awarded attorneys fees of $258,540 to Merin; $457,000 to Williams; and $30,238 to Blubaugh; plus $37,301.58 in other legal expenses for a grand total of $783,079.58.
Brett Witter, supervising deputy city attorney, applauded the court for its analysis of the fee issue. "We're certainly glad the court reduced" the fees by nearly $1 million, he said.
But he said the city has not decided whether to appeal England's ruling. He declined to comment on whether officials regret taking the case to trial rather than settling it.
Merin did not respond to a request for comment about the decision.
The battle over legal fees was perhaps the final step in a complicated process that began after a federal jury found that the city failed to properly notify homeless people about how to retrieve their possessions after police sweeps, and failed to implement policies for handling that property.
The trial featured a parade of homeless witnesses, some of whom testified about losing outdoor "survival gear" and other items seized during raids. A city police officer testified that officers must routinely roust campers in response to complaints, and then clean up the mess left behind.
Senior Deputy City Attorney Chance Trimm told The Bee after the verdict that while he respected the jury's decision, officials disagree that officers violated any constitutional rights when they enforced the anti-camping ordinance.
Following the verdict and lengthy negotiations between lawyers for both sides, the city in October began issuing checks of up to $750 to homeless men and women who could show that the city wrongly destroyed their belongings.
Call The Bee's Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @cynthia_hubert.