Yesterday, in County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court (ARCO), the Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District heard oral argument on whether public entities may hire private attorneys to represent them on a contingency-fee basis. The panel consisted of Acting Presiding Justice Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian, Justice Nathan D. Mihara, and Justice Richard J. McAdams. They are the same justices who issued a prior opinion in this case, County of Santa Clara v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 137 Cal.App.4th 292 (2006).
Owen J. Clements of the San Francisco City Attorney's office presented the County's argument. Philip H. Curtis of Arnold & Porter argued on behalf of ARCO. Both of them were extremely well prepared and presented excellent arguments.
Mr. Clements began his argument by pointing out the importance of the legal question and the fact that the issue is of very great importance to public entities across the state (as borne out by his participation in the case). He characterized the question as whether public attorneys can ever retain private attorneys on a contingency-fee basis in a public nuisance case. The trial court held that there is an absolute bar, relying on Clancy (People ex rel. Clancy v. Superior Court, 39 Cal.3d 740 (1985)). But Clancy is distinguishable. The private attorney in Clancy appeared in place of the government attorneys, rather than to assist them.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian then broke in, saying that many helpful briefs had been filed, and that there are strong policy arguments on both sides and language in Clancy that supports both sides. She pointed out that the trial court was concerned about a number of things. First, what recovery was being sought and where the money for the contingency fee would come from. Second, even if you assume there's assistance by private counsel, the briefs say that the public attorneys are going to exercise complete control over the case. The trial court said how can you ensure this? Third, even if you can ensure this, the issue in Clancy is neutrality. Shouldn't this determination be made at the end of the case? Isn't this premature?
Turning to the first issue, Justice Bamattre-Manoukian then asked what is the recovery being sought? Is the case limited to abatement [of the public nuisance]? Mr. Clements replied that no damages are being sought, but abatement can take several forms. Until abatement has actually been awarded, it's hard to say what the contingency fee might look like. He referred to a similar case pending in Rhode Island, and said that abatement was being sought there, and that there are many possibilities for what abatement might look like here. [The Rhode Island Supreme Court case cited in the briefs is State of Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Ass'n, 898 A.2d 1234 (R.I. 2006).] The common fund doctrine and the substantial benefit doctrine may also be asserted as a possible basis for fees. One possible remedy would be for this Court to send the case back to the trial court with instructions to monitor the proceedings. But don't ban at the outset an arrangement that's very helpful to the public attorneys.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian pointed out the County's argument that they are being deprived of counsel of their choice. The law seems clear, maybe, that you can hire outside lawyers on an hourly basis. Mr. Clements said yes, that's conceded in this case, and it's an absolute necessity because not all public entities have in-house lawyers. [An aside: For a number of years in the 1980s, my dad was City Attorney of the City of Porterville. The City of Porterville had no attorneys on staff. My dad stayed with his private firm throughout his tenure as City Attorney.]
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian said that Clancy requires "absolute neutrality," and then she read a lengthy quotation from the case. Mr. Clements said that Clancy requires neutrality of the decision-maker. Justice Bamattre-Manoukian said that may or may not be "complete" or "absolute" control; it may be "what's necessary," for example, if private counsel is in court handling a hearing, making objections, etc., they're in control. Mr. Clements said yes, as they would be if they were paid by the hour. Justice Bamattre-Manoukian said, so "complete" or "absolute" control is not necessary. Clements said the concern is whether the power of the government is being used by the private attorney for private gain.
Justice McAdams pointed out what appeared to him to be an inconsistency in the County's position. The public attorneys are saying they don't have the resources or expertise to handle some of this litigation, yet on the other hand you say you're exercising complete control over the outside attorneys. Clements said that absolute control is not possible, but control that involves making strategic decisions, deciding what motions to file, what experts to retain, approving settlement terms, is possible. Those are the concerns that Clancy addresses. It's not necessary under Clancy to have "absolute" control.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian asked, "Do you have to be present at every deposition and every hearing? What does 'control' mean?" Clements said we don't have to be omnipresent, looking over the shoulder of the outside attorneys. But we'll oversee to make sure there's no overreaching. This is all Clancy requires. It's the same thing we do with our hourly co-counsel. Our contract with the outside lawyers says so.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian then said: You're asking us to make this statement. How do we know whether you're in compliance with Clancy until the trial court looks at the proceeding. Don't we wait until the end of the case to determine whether the public entity has exercised neutrality (and here she quoted more language from Clancy) and then let the trial court determine, if there is any recovery, whether a contingency fee would be appropriate, the amount of the fee, and whether the award is in the public interest? Clements said that's what happening in Rhode Island. That's one way to do it. This Court could overturn the trial court's ruling and say there's no absolute bar. The trial court should not assume that there will be misconduct. The rules say you don't presume that attorneys will act unethically. You wait for evidence of misconduct.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian broke in to say we're an intermediate court. We have to follow the Supreme Court. We have one case before us. Other states are struggling with the issue of neutrality. She then quoted some more language from Clancy, saying that certain language suggested that contingency-fee arrangements are antithetical to the principle of neutrality, but that footnotes 4 and 5 suggest otherwise. Shouldn't a pronouncement on this come from the Supreme Court? Isn't it sufficient to say a determination should be made at the end of the case as to whether there's been neutrality? Shouldn't we take an intermediate position at this point?
Clements replied that he understands that might improve judicial economy and provide a better record for the Supreme Court. But he wants to argue for a higher ruling (by which he meant that the Court should go ahead and rule that there is no per se bar to contingency-fee arrangements). Later cases interpreting Clancy say that the issue is the degree of control and this is what ensures neutrality. He cited Philip Morris, Inc. v. Glendening, 709 A.2d 1230 (Md. 1988) and City and County of San Francisco v. Philip Morris, 957 F.Supp. 1130 (N.D. Cal. 1997). Justice Bamattre-Manoukian said the second one is a tort action. She said this Court can make that ruling as a matter of law, because we can't really tell right now. Clements said the trial court will always have jurisdiction to deal with it if there's evidence of misconduct. He said in the most recent case, Grass Valley [2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8917], the court said look at the fee contract and see if there's any provision that constitutes an improper delegation of public power. For example, a contract that gave the private attorney the power to veto a settlement. Such a pronouncement from this Court would not preclude the trial court from keeping an eye on what's happening.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian: Is there any statutory authority for recovery of attorneys' fees in public nuisance abatement cases? Clements: No, except equitable theories such as common fund or substantial benefit theories. Bamattre-Manoukian: There are no criminal proceedings associated with this enforcement case? Clements: No. That's a second basis on which to distinguish Clancy.
Justice McAdams then pointed out that there were First Amendment issues in Clancy. Clements said yes. The City of Corona was trying to shut down a bookstore. There was no question in that case that the city sought a prior restraint on speech. That's another way to distinguish that case from this one. Also, this case will involve no ongoing supervision of business conduct, as in Clancy. The conduct in this case has been banned by law since 1978.
Justice Mihara then spoke for the first time. You'd like us to focus on the holding of Clancy vs. other language in Clancy suggesting a broader approach. The fact that attorney James Clancy was in total control. How does that affect neutrality? This case is different, wouldn't you say? Clements caught the softball: I would say. Clancy was the only attorney who appeared. There was an undertone of vendetta against the bookstore owners. Here, we have city attorneys who are very involved. He then pointed out footnote 3 in Clancy, where the Court distinguished Sedelbauer [v. State, 455 N.E.2d 1159 (Ind. App. 1983)] on that basis.
Justice Mihara then said, reviewing the fee agreement, the facts show that the private attorneys have a subordinate role and that the public attorneys have total control, and your argument is that's perfectly acceptable because it protects neutrality. Clements: That's correct. Mihara: Looking at this case from an analytical point of view -- how the court should tackle this -- the issue in the main is the validity of the fee agreement. Clements: Yes, that's what this case is all about. The agreements have been modified to make the issue of control clearer. If there's a problem, the remedy is to modify the fee agreement rather than disqualify counsel.
Justice Mihara went on: Is there any evidence that would suggest a conflict of interest that would impede neutrality? Clements: Only the suggestion that contingency-fee arrangements inherently undermine neutrality. However, private outside counsel are ethically bound to subordinate their interests to those of their clients, the People, just like hourly attorneys. Justice Mihara: You're saying we control this case, we have outside counsel assisting us, let us try this case. If any problem comes up, opposing counsel will bring it to the court's attention. But as far as the fee agreements are concerned, there is no difficulty, and the trial court would have the opportunity to ferret out any improper exercise of control?
Clements: Yes. We have had 7 years of litigation and there is no specific evidence of bias or misconduct. There is no need to categorically bar the contingency-fee arrangement. The approach this Court is suggesting is much wiser.
Justice McAdams: What is the practical effect on the hiring of counsel if we leave this to the end of the case? Clements: That's the reason why I'm arguing for what I called a "higher ruling" -- that there's nothing wrong with this arrangement absent evidence of wrongdoing. Leaving it to the end creates more risk for the outside attorney. Of course, the outside attorney is already bearing a lot of risk, including the risk that the case will not succeed.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian: Hourly work also creates problems. There is self-interest inherent in hourly fee relationships as well. Clements: Yes. Bamattre-Manoukian: How do you interpret footnote 3 of Clancy? Clements: It's the control that any client has to say I want you to file this suit. In Clancy the public attorney wasn't involved in those decisions. In this case we have a much higher level of control than in other cases -- strategic decisions regarding the exercise of government power are made by the public attorneys.
And that was the end of Clements' argument.
Mr. Curtis pulled no punches. The first words he said were, "The poison is already in the system. It's been in the system since those agreements were signed." He said he was pleased to hear the Court quote Clancy (and he repeated part of the quotation). There's a lot at stake here about the system. We've repeatedly heard about "private attorneys," "private attorneys," "private attorneys." The attorneys with power to bring this case are public attorneys. I disagree with the idea that Clancy contains language supporting both sides.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian broke in with another quotation from Clancy: "Nothing we say herein should be construed as preventing the government, under appropriate circumstances, from engaging private counsel. Certainly there are cases in which a government may hire an attorney on a contingent fee to try a civil case." [Clancy, 39 Cal.3d at 748.] Curtis: I agree with that completely. The distinction is between a proprietary action vs. a representative action. [This public nuisance case is considered a "representative" action.] The rule that Clancy laid down applies to a public representative action. There are no exceptions.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian then asked if neutrality is preserved, why should a contingency-fee agreement be precluded if the trial court addresses it at the end of the case and the trial court finds that the public attorneys retained control so as to preserve neutrality, that the interests of the public have been served, and there has been no misuse of public funds? How does it offend the sense of neutrality? There is no criminal prosecution in this case. Many counties lack resources. Some have very few staff attorneys. How does that offend Clancy?
Curtis: Clancy answered that question. The attorney argued I'm an independent contractor. The Court said "a lawyer cannot escape the heightened ethical requirements of one who performs governmental functions merely by declaring he is not a public official. The responsibility follows the job: if Clancy is performing tasks on behalf of and in the name of the government to which greater standards of neutrality apply, he must adhere to those standards." [Clancy, 39 Cal.3d at 747.] There's no "control exception" in that language. Clancy recognized the big issues in play regarding public confidence -- if the public prosecutor is tainted by personal gain that undermines public confidence. It's the agreement itself that's the problem. Clancy sets down a categorical rule that a government lawyer (and these private attorneys are government lawyers) -- if they have a financial stake in the outcome we have a very serious problem. There's no control exception.
Curtis went on: There are two foundations to Clancy. One is constitutional and the other is ethical. The constitutional foundation is in the language that's been read into the record today at pages 746-747 ("When a government attorney has a personal interest in the litigation, the neutrality so essential to the system is violated." [Clancy, 39 Cal.3d at 746]) and also in the four cases the Clancy Court cited. All four are constitutional authorities.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian interjected: All of those cases have facts distinguishable from the facts we have here. Curtis: Clancy says those cases are not to be distinguished. Clancy is the controlling authority and says those distinctions don't matter. Toomey [phonetic] makes clear that the United States Supreme Court recognizes that there's a difference between some types of biases and the government officer having a personal financial stake in the outcome. Clancy says the first type of bias might be tinkered with by the Legislature but the other can't be. "The responsibility follows the job." [Clancy, 39 Cal.3d at 747.]
Justice McAdams: How is this different from any other contingency-fee contract? Curtis: The difference is who the client is. That's a good way to turn to the ethical strain in Clancy. The client is the sovereign; it has a duty to ensure justice is done. This means its agents can't have a personal financial stake in one side or another. Not even twelve dollars or twenty-five dollars. In Rhode Island, the plaintiffs are seeking billions of dollars in relief and they're going to try to get their fees out of it. The issue is going to the court right now. Briefing is about to be submitted [he might have said already submitted; can't recall].
Curtis continued: There is no "supervision exception" in Clancy. It's been made from whole cloth in these other cases, which were either not public nuisance cases or wrongly decided. The question came up of what use Clancy made of Sedelbauer. He said the issue the Court was addressing was how the case should be styled under the Code of Civil Procedure. They were saying it should be brought in the name of the District Attorney. In footnote 3, the Sedelbauer footnote, the Court was grasping at straws. It cited an Indiana case. It's inconceivable that the Court was articulating a "supervision exception" in footnote 3 because on page 750 the Court says that on remand the case must be styled "People ex. rel [District Attorney] Dallas Holmes" -- it's okay for Holmes to hire Mr. Clancy. [The language from Clancy reads: "Thus on remand the action herein should be brought in the name of Dallas Holmes, the Corona City Attorney. The City may hire Clancy to represent Holmes. (Gov. Code, § 37103.)." Clancy, 39 Cal.3d at 750 n.5.]
Curtis went on: The Court understood perfectly well what a towering principle it was dealing with. We will have a neutral judge and neutral public lawyers. This does not mean the lawyers can have a profit stake without running afoul of the ethics rules.
Justice McAdams then referred to some of the language in ARCO's brief: "incentive to maximize the monetary award by any means possible." You argue that the mere existence of the contingency-fee agreement creates this incentive. How would the private attorney do this if their actions are being controlled by the public attorney? [An aside: I thought it was interesting at this point that Justice McAdams continued to refer to the outside lawyer as a "private attorney," despite Curtis' argument that a private attorney acting on behalf of a government entity becomes a "public attorney."] How does it play out as a practical matter?
Curtis said that no court will ever be in the conference room where strategy decisions are made. We're never going to know where there's an impact. The attorneys with billions of dollars at stake are not going to be potted plants. For example, there has been some success in cases dealing with childhood lead exposure. [This case involves "the public nuisance created by lead paint." County of Santa Clara, 137 Cal.App.4th at 298.] A neutral might not think it's a good idea to hire thousands of workers to abate every single one. There are lots of different ways that influence can be brought to bear. In the Louis Vuitton case, the court rejected a "harmless error" argument. It said we're dealing with a fundamental, systemic problem. We don't look at harmless error. In the federal system, for a public prosecutor to have a financial interest in a prosecution is "a go-to-jail offense." Those exercising the government's discretion may not have a financial interest in the outcome.
Justice McAdams said but couldn't the same argument be made by the hourly attorney -- who's no shrinking violet -- saying to the meek public attorney, let's not settle this case; let's go all the way. Curtis said of course. Hourly retentions have conceivably some issue. But what's so troublesome about the contingency-fee arrangement is that it depends on the outcome as to the defendant. Clancy and other authorities say it's so erosive to our system of law and government that we're not going there. We understand that the risk of influence, and the public perception of the risk of influence, is too overwhelmingly great.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian then asked Curtis the same question she asked Clements: Is there any statutory authority for fees in a public nuisance case? Curtis said what they're asking for is common fund -- it's mentioned in the agreements. These attorneys are not in the business of working for free. That's why this is not premature. You're entitled to neutrality from the beginning of the case.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian then said: What about the Rhode Island case where they decided to wait? (And she read a quotation from the Rhode Island case.) Curtis said: I think the Rhode Island Supreme Court got it wrong. I think the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court got it right. Rhode Island chose not to recognize the principle. Go back to Clancy and look at how the court dealt with Sedelbauer.
At this point, Mr. Curtis spent quite a while parsing the County's writ petition (specifically, pages 29-31) and basically arguing that the petition misrepresented the holding of Clancy. He concluded that part of his argument by emphasizing "the principles upon which the Clancy opinion was based -- constitutional and ethical principles. If you're acting on behalf of the government, you must act with neutrality. Clancy controls. The trial court got it right. This is a problem that has to be nipped in the bud."
From the tone of his voice, that sounded like the end of his argument. But no, there were more questions. (The same thing happened near the end of Clements' argument.)
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian said what about cases where small counties have no funds to pursue these cases? Pursuing the case is in the public interest, but the only way they can pursue it is if private lawyers step up. You would say to them that Clancy precludes that? Curtis replied, We've got to decide the case before us. This case involves ten counties. They have hundreds of employees and budgets that add up to billions. But even in your more extreme case, the constitution and ethics cannot give way there. When an attorney exercises government power, that government attorney cannot have a financial stake in the outcome against the defendant.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian then summarized the Court's three options for disposing of the case. First, the Court could affirm, which would likely lead to further review before the Supreme Court. Second, the Court could remand for the issue to be resolved by the trial court at the end of the case. Mr. Curtis jumped in to say that that is contrary to Clancy and "the federal constitutional authorities I've cited." Justice Bamattre-Manoukian then said that the Court's third option is to hold that the trial court didn't get it right, and instruct that court to monitor the case. Curtis objected to that proposal by saying that if there are exceptions to Clancy (which is what such a holding would imply), it's for the California Supreme Court to identify them.
And that was the end of his argument.
On rebuttal, Mr. Clements said Mr. Curtis was advancing a reading of Clancy as an absolute, categorical rule. That's not the holding of Clancy. It's the job of courts to look at cases and distinguish them. Clancy is distinguishable.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian said that footnote 5 of Clancy says you can hire Mr. Clancy back, but presumably on an hourly basis. Mr. Clements replied that you'd still have an issue regarding delegating authority on an hourly basis. They're inferring a lot from footnote 5. Footnote 5 relates to how the case should be captioned. Bamattre-Manoukian: But it does seem a little inconsistent with their holding, which was to disqualify Mr. Clancy. Justice Bamattre-Manoukian and Mr. Clements then talked back and forth about the fact that the footnote doesn't specify hourly vs. contingency nor does it specify whether Mr. Clancy could be hired as the sole attorney for the DA, as opposed to working in a co-counsel capacity with the DA. Mr. Clements said that no court has extended Clancy as an absolute rule that applies when private attorneys are co-counseling and assisting public attorneys and when the public attorneys retain control.
Justice Bamattre-Manoukian said that there were no California cases that address the issue at all. Clements said that the Grass Valley case, which is the opinion of a federal district court in California, did. He also cited the "interest of justice" provision in Code of Civil Procedure section 128 [which relates to the trial court's power to control the proceedings before it] and a case called People of Santa Monica, which recognized a balancing test.
Responding to Curtis' argument that the Court should decide just the case before it, Clements said this is a case that will make a rule for all. It will affect all public entities including those who don't have an in-house attorney. There's a public interest in deciding issues on the merits, especially in a case like this.
Clements went on: You need actual evidence of improper bias or violation of ethical duties, and there's none of that in this case after seven years. The order should be that the trial court got it wrong and the rule should be that contingency-fee agreements are acceptable if the agreement preserves the government attorney's control. Justice Bamattre-Manoukian broke in: It's not really "misconduct," is it? Rather, it's neutrality and control. Clements replied that "excessive delegation" might be a better way to put it. There are five lines of defense here. The first line of defense is the ethical duty of all attorneys. Courts do not assume that attorneys are going to breach their ethical duties. The second line of defense is the public officials who will be supervising the private lawyers. The law presumes that public officials discharge their duties. Third, the fee contracts have been approved by the public entities, here, the Board of Supervisors. Fourth, able defense counsel are on the watch. And fifth, the trial court will take action if any evidence of excessive delegation arises.
That was the end of the argument. As I mentioned early this morning, my sense at the conclusion of the argument was that the justices were leaning in favor of the County's position. I think they will either adopt the County's legal argument, or remand for the trial court to consider, at the end of the case, whether the government attorneys exercised sufficient control throughout the litigation so as to make an award of contingency fees proper. Either result would be a victory for the County. An opinion will be due by mid-April.