Mobile has spent more than $2.4 million in legal fees and in excess of $1.5 million on settlements over the last two years, according to city records.
In addition, the eight lawyers on the city staff make just over $1 million combined in salaries. The pay ranges from $61,505 to $119,828. The salaries listed do not include City Attorney Ricardo Woods because he is not a full-time city employee.
Those eight staff attorneys support nearly 30 departments within the city and deal with all employee issues, Woods said. Also, half of the staff attorneys prosecute 50,000 new cases a year in municipal court, while the other half is dedicated to civil cases.
“Everything goes through legal,” Woods said. “You can imagine that’s a lot of work. My folks are very busy and they do a good job.”
Currently, there are 98 civil cases pending, both internal and external, Woods said. The 46 internal cases generally involve personnel issues, while the 52 external cases generally involve the city being named in lawsuits, Woods said.
The city paid $1.3 million to13 different outside law firms during fiscal year 2014 and a little more than $1 million to nine firms in fiscal year 2013. In addition to helping ease the workload on staff members, Woods said outside firms are used to help prevent conflicts, if multiple city employees, or departments are involved in a lawsuit.
“Those are ethical concerns for attorneys,” Woods said.
If a plaintiff decided to sue the city and a department head, the legal department could handle it because they can represent two defendants in the same case at the same time, Woods said. If there are more defendants the city has to seek outside counsel, if there’s a potential conflict, Woods said.
Law firms are chosen based upon past working relationship and the strength of the individual attorney, Woods said.
“We look for good lawyers first,” Woods said. “Then we look for lawyers we have a good relationship with.”
In fiscal year 2013, the city paid $13,888 to Bell Law Firm, $9,354 to Burr Forman, $694,213 to Galloway, Wettermark, Everest, Rutens & Gaillard, $10,679 to Hand Arendall, $375 to Jason Hagmaier, $19,080 to John L. Lawler, $102,019 to Jones Walker, $1,087 to The Atchison Firm and $221,322 to the Rossler Law Firm.
Payments to Jim Rossler, Mobile City Council’s attorney, were split among two departments. The council, which paid him $134,395 and the city legal department, which paid him $86,927. In addition to being the attorney for the council, Rossler also defends law enforcement officers and is paid by the city for that work. Rossler said he’s been defending law enforcement officials for 30 years.
Wanda Rahman, who is counsel for the Mobile Police Department, doesn’t handle defense of officers, Woods said. She represents the department in more internal issues.
The payment to Galloway, Wettermark, Everest, Rutens & Gaillard was also split two ways. Of the total, $183,077 came from the legal department, while $511,136 went to litigation.
Woods was appointed by Mayor Sandy Stimpson to replace Larry Wettermark as city attorney last year.
In fiscal year 2014, the city paid $41,362 to Adams and Reese, $51,991 to Arembrecht Jackson, $84,356 to Bell Law Firm, $564,712 to Burr Forman, $339,130 to Galloway, Wettermark & Rutens, $19,845 to Hand Arendall, $13,912 to John L. Lawler, $17,000 to Jones Walker, $33,096 to Maynard Cooper, $750 to McFadden, Lyon & Rouse, $169,149 to Rossler Law Firm, $15,077 to Satterwhite, Druhan, Gaillard & Tyler and $8,066 to the Brandyburg Firm.
Payments to Galloway, Wettermark, Everest & Rutens were split among the city legal department and litigation. Rossler was paid $95,869 for City Council work and $73,280 for work in the legal department.
Burr Forman saw an increase in payments from the city because Woods is an attorney for the firm. He said as such, he coordinates city work with other attorneys at the firm. Of the 52 external cases currently pending, attorneys from Burr Forman are handling 28 of them, he said.
The City Council nearly doubled its legal budget for fiscal year 2015. The line item for council legal fees increased from $80,000 in the amended fiscal year 2014 budget to $150,000 in the new budget.
Council President Gina Gregory said the move was meant to act as a raise for Rossler, who is paid by the hour and doesn’t take a salary through the city.
“I don’t think he’s had a raise since he started working for us,” she said. “This gets him in line with other attorneys who work with the city.”
In fiscal year 2013, the city settled 30 cases for a total of $727,111. The largest of those settlements went to Malcolm White for $100,000.
Woods said the case was before his time as city attorney, but that the settlement involved a personal injury case.
In fiscal year 2014, the city settled 20 cases for $775,992. The largest of those settlements went to Jerald Riviere on a workman’s compensation claim, Woods said. The city also settled with Michelle King for $125,000 on a claim that followed an accident involving a city vehicle, Woods said.
The city has stopped agreeing to nuisance settlements, or paying out money just to make something go away, Woods said. Settlement agreements must be based on a clear issue of liability, he said.
“If our people haven’t done anything wrong, or there’s not a question of liability then we’re not going to settle,” Woods said.