In the two years since January of 2013, Mobile County has spent around $3 million on various legal work and litigation, but County Attorney Jay Ross says those numbers are on the low side considering the size of the county and its large number of employees.
Employed by Adams and Reese LLP, Ross is one of three attorneys working within the county’s legal department full time. Ross is a contract employee who is paid an hourly rate that varies depending on the type of work.
The other attorneys are salary employees, and though they are exempt from the merit system and the Mobile County Personnel Board and draw a combined salary of around $165,000.
As the attorney, Ross is tasked with overseeing and managing all the legal matters that come before the county.
“It’s challenging to handle all of that litigation sometimes,” Ross said. “Containing costs is always the number one factor, and I think we’ve gotten a really good value for the dollars we’ve paid.”
Those dollars — specifically the $3 million figure above — do not included the cost of financial settlements the county agrees to, but rather comprise the legal fees generated from contracts with various law firms brought in as outside counsel. According to Ross, the county pays a $135 an hour for non-litigious work and an hourly rate of $175 for active litigation.
In Alabama, legal and professional services are expressly exempt from state bid requirements, and delegating the county’s legal obligation to outside counsel falls solely on Ross’ shoulders.
“That decision is based on business practices, legal judgment and ethics,” Ross said. “Somewhat of a benefit to being the county attorney is the ability to get the extra legal work, but I share it around.”
Ross also said, by practice, each commissioner has some discretion over selecting attorneys who litigate issues in their district, but said there’s no law or policy that expressly states that. However, Ross said the commissioners aren’t briefed on every detail or every legal matter because of the sheer volume the county sees.
“They generally are not involved in the day-to-day process of litigation. That is something that’s left to the legal department and me to handle, using best practices and ethical standards,” Ross said. “Now, they could be involved if they chose to, but typically, as the level of exposure, cost and country resources becomes higher — I try to let them know more of what goes on.”
Commission President Connie Hudson said she and her fellow commissioners are actively in the legal decision making process, but do so under the advisement of Ross and the county’s legal experts.
In the two years of data provided to Lagniappe, 22 different law firms are listed as having received contract work from Mobile County and its legal department. The largest recipient of those funds is by far Adams and Reese, which came in at around $1.6 million.
Ross said that includes the hourly work he bills to the county as well as litigation costs for issues like financial claims against the county, lawsuits over drainage and erosion issues and the SouthBARK federal lawsuit the county settled out of court in late 2014.
The most expensive single lawsuit has been the ongoing legal battle with the Mobile County District Attorney’s office, which filed sues the county over “historic staffing shortages.” The lawsuit, which is still pending before Alabama’s Supreme Court, has cost Mobile County more than $200,000 — money that has gone to the Battle Law Firm.
In total, the Atchison Firm is the second-highest-earning firm on the list, coming in at $240,000 for work mostly done for Sheriff Sam Cochran and his department, according to Ross.
“We usually let the elected official make the call as to who represents their legal interest,” he said.
Probate Judge Don Davis also has a preferred firm and lawyer despite having in-house attorneys at his disposal. According to Ross, Michael Druhan performs legal work for Davis’ office in and out of court, and records show he has charges nearing $119,000 at two law firms since 2013.
Ross also said Druhan is working with Davis on the “interesting and complicated predicament” he’s found himself in regarding same-sex marriage in Alabama and the conflicting orders probate judges have received from state and federal courts. Because those charges would have occurred in 2015, they aren’t reflected in the financial data provided to Lagniappe.
“I don’t have a tally on that, but it’s continuing to increase daily, as the judge now finds himself in a predicament of having to adhere to federal a court order and dealing with the possibility of contempt charges,” Ross said.
Other significant expenditures included $119,000 to Hand Arendall for work related to the county’s numerous bond issues and advisement related to the Plains Southcap pipeline lawsuit, and $201,000 paid to Christopher Kern for bankruptcy litigation related to the office of Revenue Commissioner Marilyn Wood.
A full list of the county’s legal expenses can be viewed below this story. Though the prices might seem high to the average citizen, Ross said Mobile County has gotten a lot value for the dollars it’s spent in and out of the courtroom over the past two years.
“There’s a myriad of issues the county can see legal action from, and pretty much the larger the municipality, the bigger the target,” Ross said. “There’s a perception that large government entities have deep pockets and can pay out more in a judgment.”
Despite that target, Ross said he feels like the legal costs since 2013 have been extremely reasonable, and said going forward — barring any unexpected suit — they should be on a downward trend as the county has settled most of active litigation and is currently only involved in one material lawsuit.
Ross said an additional decrease is expected because a state pool for worker’s compensation claims has been set, which will prevent both internal and external lawyers from billing the county for that type of litigation.
The county also pays an additional $60,000 annually to Abercrombie, Simmons & Gillette, Inc., a third party claims investigations company that helps determine the county’s possible liability when claims are initially filed, but typically before they have become full-fledged lawsuits.
The county also pays for insurance against settlements and incurred legal fees that provides coverage for up to $300,000, which can actually mean the county gets money back when a settlement for less than that amount is reached.
Though the amount wasn’t disclosed, Ross said the SouthBARK settlement was one such example of the county getting money back from its carrier. Ross said when such instances occur, any money recovered is placed back into the general fund and disseminated to all of the county’s departments.
Though he couldn’t quantify it, Ross said “a lot” of the claims alleged against the county are resolved internally, and in many cases, it’s determined the county doesn’t have any legal liability. Still, Ross said there’s always something to do when practicing law in the public sector.
“I’ve been here nine years. If you can name it, it’s probably happened,” He said. “We live in a very litigious society, and we live with laws that are almost constantly changing.”