A Sacramento judge Friday stopped short of ordering Sacramento County to pay millions of dollars in fees to the attorneys of four female sheriff’s deputies who won a lawsuit claiming retaliation at the hands of their superiors.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge David De Alba left open the question of whether Sacramento County will have to pay plaintiffs’ attorneys the $5.3 million De Alba tentatively ordered in a Thursday ruling, even as he allowed that he was “inclined to embrace” his earlier decision that would order the county to pay the award.
A decision could come as early as next week, though the county plans to add an appeal of the fee ruling to its appeal of jurors’ $3.6 million award to Sacramento County sheriff’s Sgt. Tracie Keillor, Deputy Jodi Mendonca, Lt. Dawn Douglas and lead plaintiff Lt. Annica Hagadorn in May.
Attorneys for the county on Friday called on De Alba to reduce the award by two-thirds, arguing that plaintiffs’ attorneys overestimated work hours and “drastically over pled” their case in a way that ratcheted up paperwork and work hours for attorneys and their staffers, leaving county’s attorneys wondering which claims the plaintiff deputies hoped to pursue.
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“We went through three rounds of complaints,” said attorney David Burkett of Sacramento employment law firm Porter Scott, creating what he called “a miasma of discovery” for Sacramento County’s hired legal team.
De Alba appeared unmoved.
“Because the county couldn’t figure it out, I’m supposed to reduce fees?” De Alba responded from the bench. In the tentative ruling, De Alba reduced the hourly rates for plaintiffs’ attorneys Brad Yamauchi and Jack Lee from $695 to $550 per hour, calling the higher rate “excessive.” The judge also reduced by half the 700 hours billed by one plaintiff’s attorney, calling the time “patently unreasonable for the vague tasks described.”
Later, from the bench, De Alba appeared to acknowledge the risks involved in taking on a contingency case, saying plaintiffs’ attorneys – who had worked the case for more than six years – would not have been paid if their clients had lost at trial.
The $5.3 million includes roughly $3.5 million plus a 1.5 percent “fee enhancement” challenged by the county in filings and at the Friday hearing. De Alba on Friday said he had considered a higher enhancement before settling on the amount in the tentative ruling. Fee enhancements are designed as financial incentives for taking on contingency cases, De Alba’s ruling stated, citing case law.
“I fully recognize the risks that you took, the sensitivity of taking on this case, the complexity. Four officers are claiming their department did something wrong toward them. That doesn’t happen every day,” De Alba said. “The law recognizes that (attorneys) should have financial incentive so they continue to pursue these cases.”
De Alba also took pains to say his tentative award should not be seen as “a comment on Sacramento County or its Sheriff’s Department. It’s simply a reflection of the labor, skill and success of the attorneys. They had to overcome the best attorneys in Sacramento to prevail. It recognizes the accomplishment that counsel has secured.”
Add Thursday’s seven-digit sum to the nearly $3.6 million jurors awarded the deputies in May along with the estimated $1.15 million the county had already spent in its long legal battle and the total reaches roughly $10 million – and counting.
Sacramento County in August filed an 11th-hour appeal of the jurors’ decision that sided with the deputies’ claims that they were retaliated against by their department superiors, keeping powerful Sacramento employment law firm Porter Scott on board to handle the appeal. Officials in August said it was the county’s “fiduciary duty” to appeal the payout. Litigation expenses are paid from a liability fund, said county officials.
The county’s legal odyssey began in 2010 when Hagadorn filed suit after going to state fair employment and housing officials with complaints of bias against her department that she said prevented her from advancing her career. The judge rejected bias claims but allowed claims of retaliation.
Keillor, Mendonca and Douglas all worked at Sacramento County Main Jail, Douglas as a jail supervisor, when they say they confronted their captain, now-Undersheriff Erik Maness, with their suspicions of an inappropriate relationship between Maness and a female deputy.
The three were reassigned within months of Maness assuming command of the jail from Scott Jones when Jones was elected Sacramento County sheriff and soon joined Hagadorn’s lawsuit. Much of the alleged retaliation had occurred while Jones served as a captain in charge of the Sacramento County Main Jail and later as Sacramento County sheriff.
Maness and Jones were among a cast of department brass who took the stand on the county’s behalf to defend the department’s actions. Jones, running as a Republican for the suburban Sacramento County congressional seat held by incumbent Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, has denied the deputies’ retaliation claims.
At trial, attorneys for the county cited issues from personality to poor performance to crippling budget constraints for the personnel moves, arguing the deputies lost neither rank nor pay or benefits.
Keillor, who also was hit with an internal investigation over allegations that she tampered with electronic personnel files, was later cleared of wrongdoing but suffered a stroke that she claimed was triggered by the inquiry.
Jurors awarded Keillor much of the $3.6 million judgment in May. De Alba is awaiting an expected October decision by state workers’ compensation officials to determine whether to grant the payout.