The city of Mobile has been billed for more than $100,000 in legal fees and expenses for defending the Solid Waste Authority in a breach of contract lawsuit filed by Waste Management late in 2013.
Late last month, a federal jury awarded Waste Management more than $8 million as a result of the lawsuit, although it’s unclear how the SWA will pay it.
City Attorney Ricardo Woods said the city is on the hook for the legal fees, but said it would not be responsible for paying the $8.1 million judgment awarded in U.S. District Court.
“The Solid Waste Authority is a separate, stand-alone entity,” Woods said. “I can’t tell you who’s responsible, but I know who isn’t.”
He said the city is responsible for “incidental costs” for the authority, although he couldn’t remember any recent bills the city had to foot that would fit under that label.
The city is responsible for the tipping fee Waste Management charges for disposal of the city’s garbage, Woods said. From March 1, 2012 to Feb. 1, 2013, the city paid out more than $1.3 million to Waste Management for these tipping fees, according to the city’s weekly check register. Woods said while the SWA has a contract with Waste Management, the city has a contract with SWA to pay the fees.
The $103,620.08 bill the city will pay related to the trial breaks down into $79,604 for legal fees and $24,016.04 for expenses. The fees pay for the time the attorneys spent working the case, while the expenses are related to hard costs, like copying and filing documents, Woods said.
The bill is split between three Mobile firms. Former City Attorney Larry Wettermark’s firm of Wettermark, Everest, Rutens & Gailard, LLP racked up the most at $38,435. SWA attorney Jim Rossler’s law office saw the second-largest amount at $26,025 and Burr & Forman, LLP, Woods’ law office, took in $15,144 from the case, according to an accounting of the fees compiled by the city’s legal department. Rossler has also served as the attorney for the Mobile City Council for many years.
Woods said Rossler and Wettermark did most of the work on the case because it was their “baby.” He added that the actions that led to the lawsuit occurred when Wettermark was still the city’s attorney. Woods’ firm monitored the case, he said.
The numbers are broken down further by month, with the first bill for $1,766.24 in fees from Burr & Forman, dating back to April 2014, nearly six months after Waste Management filed suit.
“The case moved really slowly at first,” Woods said. “There was a whole lot of wait time for documents.”
Woods said there was a lot of time spent preparing for the trial because of the volume of documents needed.
Woods’ firm charged legal fees in May and June of 2014, as well as fees and expenses in July. The total charged for those three months tops $12,000. Burr & Forman charged for work every following month in 2014. Wettermark’s firm charged more than $33,000 combined in September and October.
Rossler’s firm got involved and charged a sum of more than $25,000 in December and January.
Woods said settlement attempts were made before trial. Those attempts came in the form of two mediation meetings, Waste Management Attorney Jaime Betbeze said. Both attorneys said they were prohibited from speaking about the negotiations.
Waste Management filed suit against the city’s Solid Waste Authority in August 2013 after asking the board on several occasions for an increase in the tipping fee charged to the city for dumping of its garbage in the Chastang Landfill, which Waste Management operates.
The $20-per-ton fee had only been changed once temporarily since it was set in 1993, despite rate increases being allowed in the contract.
The authority maintained that Waste Management hadn’t provided the documentation needed to support a rate increase. Further complicating issues between Waste Management and the Solid Waste Authority was the fact the authority failed to meet for three full years during the time Sam Jones was mayor — from 2008 – 2011. Authority officials have said when they did attempt to meet they were unable to get enough members present to have a legal quorum.
One of the biggest issues in the trial was the authority’s contract with Dirt, Inc. for disposal of the city’s yard waste. Waste Management argued it was also a breach of contract and U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose agreed.
After five days of testimony, seven jurors sided with Waste Management and awarded the company $8.1 million. The jury also set an appropriate tipping fee at $27.38 per ton.
Post-trial motions are expected in the case. For instance, Rossler upheld his motion for a mistrial after the jury reached its verdict. Rossler took issue with the manner in which a Waste Management financial analyst arrived at the amount of money owed to the firm because of the authority’s contract with Dirt, Inc. Rossler said he was given pertinent information about it, in the form of a spreadsheet, only about six days before the trial. He argued that wasn’t enough time to have the numbers independently verified.
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