Monday, June 3, 2019
Court of Appeal:
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal on Friday declared that plaintiffs in a civil rights action over a forcible detention at a mansion where a party took place who collectively obtained a jury award of less than $5,400, then sought inflated attorney fees of nearly $3.8 million, are entitled to just what the trial court granted in fees: nothing.
Justice Richard M. Aronson of the Fourth District Court of Appeal wrote the opinion, which was not certified for publication. It affirms a post-judgment order of Orange Superior Court Judge Kim Garlin Dunning, who is now serving as a pro tem justice on this district’s Court of Appeal.
Dunning found that the plaintiffs’ 392-page motion sought fees that were “bloated,” based on and sometimes “cringeworthy” billing records. She noted:
“[I]n all those pages there is not a single declaration or chart that clearly and concisely sets forth the number of hours billed, the hourly rates, and the total amount requested for attorney’s fees.”
The firms representing the plaintiffs were Quintilone & Associates, located in Orange County’s Lake Forest, and Eisenberg Law Firm, APC, in Beverly Hills.
Dunning termed the result in the case “pyrrhic.”
Thirteen persons brought the action, seeking more than $1 million, against several law enforcement agencies and officers. All defendants except Orange County Sheriff’s Department Investigator Michele Hill either settled or were dismissed.
On Nov. 1, 2007, Hill, with about 40 officers, entered the Santa Ana hilltop mansion of reality TV performer Vini “Big Daddy” Bergeman during an all-night Halloween party, searching, pursuant to a warrant, for evidence of illegal gambling. Her arrival followed by approximately an hour a predawn raid by roughly 100 SWAT team officers who restrained the costumed partygoers’ hands, behind their backs, with zip ties.
The SWAT team exited at about 7 a.m., two hours after they arrived, but Hill and others remained, searching the 21,000-square-foot home and questioning guests.
At the first trial, then-Orange Superior Court Judge Gail A. Andler (now a private judge) granted Hill’s motion for a directed verdict. The Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Aronson, on Jan. 16, 2015, reversed the judgment as to one cause of action.
It held that the plaintiffs were entitled to a trial on their claim, pursuant to 42 USC §1983, that they were wrongfully detained after the search had ended.
At the second trial, the plaintiffs contended that the search—which uncovered two slot machines which Bergman insisted were inoperable—ended by 7:30 a.m., but the jury found, by special verdict, that it lasted until 2 p.m. Only nine of the plaintiffs were detained past that point.
The longest of the detentions were for 14 hours.
Largest among the awards by the jury was one for $3,000. Jurors awarded three of the plaintiffs $200 each.
In considering the attorney fee request, Dunning observed:
“A jury verdict for each of nine plaintiffs in an amount far below the ceiling for a small claims case is certainly de minimis, if not nominal.”
In his opinion affirming Dunning, Aronson noted that a judge is authorized under 42 USC §1988 to award “reasonable” attorney fees to a party who prevails in a federal civil rights action. He wrote:
“[A] court’s foremost task in considering a section 1988 motion is to evaluate the reasonableness of the fee requested. The ‘most critical factor’ in that analysis is the degree of success obtained by the prevailing plaintiff.”
Aronson rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the recovery cannot be compared to an amount which they sought because the complaint contained no specific demand. The pre-trial offers of compromise before the first trial, as well as the settlement conference offer before the second trial, he pointed out, exceeded $1 million.
“[T]he trial court properly considered the amounts sought by plaintiffs at the outset and throughout this litigation, rather than simply their diminished expectations after a series of losses left them with a solitary defendant and a single sliver of their original case,” he said.
The plaintiffs insisted that their action served a useful public purpose.
Plaintiffs conclude their case resulted in clarifying the law relating to post-search detentions.
“Clarification of this legal issue was unnecessary because the prohibition against prolonged detention was established in this jurisdiction at the time of the 2007 search,” Aronson responded.
The fact that the court’s 2015 opinion in the case was partially published and its request for supplemental briefing does not prove otherwise, he said, remarking that “courts publish opinions and request briefing for a variety of reasons.”
He noted that the fees were sought “in an almost 400-page motion crammed with obfuscating and questionable billing records.”
The case is Guillory v. Hill, G054027.
Richard E. Quintilone II of Quintilone & Associates and Mark W. Eisenberg of the Eisenberg Law Firm represented the plaintiffs on appeal, as they did below, and Norman J. Watkins, S. Frank Harrell, and Pancy Lin of the City of Orange form of Lynberg & Watkins acted for Hill.
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