While the city of Mobile has seen an uptick in lawsuits defending law enforcement in the past two years, the amount of legal fees and expenses it has paid to outside firms has not dramatically increased in fiscal years 2015 and 2016.
Legal fees for 2016 totaled just slightly more than $2 million, while the total for 2015 was more at just over $2.3 million. In 2013 and 2014, legal fees totaled more than $4 million.
City attorney Ricardo Woods, of Burr & Forman, said he couldn’t discuss any specific officer-involved lawsuits, but added there had generally been an uptick since the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Woods said cities around the country are dealing with an increase in lawsuits since that shooting.
Possibly leading to the uptick, Woods suggested, is a shift in how similar cases are handled since Ferguson. For instance, based on the interpretation of a recent Supreme Court case, some attorneys go after individual officers to work around municipal caps on liability exposure, which limit the award a victim or a victim’s family can receive from a municipality. The cap is set at $300,000, Woods said.
“Some take that case to mean there’s no cap on exposure for individual officers,” he said. “If in an individual capacity, some argue the cap doesn’t apply.”
Ferguson also changed the level of scrutiny for these types of cases, Woods said.
“There has been a recent rash of settlements nationally,” he said. “There aren’t more lawsuits, but the lawsuits are handled in a different way.”
Multiple firms and attorneys also have to be used in some law enforcement defense cases, Woods said, to avoid conflicts of interest. For example, if multiple officers are included in a suit, the level of possible culpability for each of the officers is usually different, Woods said. Different attorneys and firms are used in this scenario to avoid a conflict, he said.
In Mobile, a situation arose where there were four officers involved in a lawsuit with five law firms involved, Woods said. Burr & Forman represented the city in the suit, while four other firms defended each of the involved officers, he said.
Woods named Burr & Forman; Armbrecht, Jackson; Maynard, Cooper & Gale; The Brandyburg Firm; and Bell Law Firm as firms that have helped the city defend officer-involved lawsuits.
According to city records, those firms were paid a total of $1.1 million in 2016 for various legal work, including law enforcement liability defense.
“None of these lawsuits have occurred while [Mayor Sandy Stimpson] has been in office,” Woods said. “It was just a matter of timing when they were filed.”
Burr & Forman were paid the most of the firms on the list, at $875,139 in 2016, according to city records. The firm charged the city slightly more in 2015 at $898,816. It employs Woods, so the firm bills the city for a variety of work. For instance, the firm has a hand in every lawsuit filed.
“It’s anything we need,” Woods said. “It’s full-service for the city. We defend an overwhelming number of lawsuits.”
Woods is continuing the policy of not simply settling “nuisance” lawsuits, he said. By refusing to settle, Woods said, fewer attorneys will file “nuisance” suits.
“It saves money and time,” he said.
Armbrecht, Jackson charged the city $127,179 in 2016, records indicate. Woods said in addition to police defense, the firm also handles some employment work for the city. The firm was paid $206,244 in 2015.
Maynard, Cooper & Gale charged $106,071 to the city in 2016. In addition to the law enforcement defense, the firm helps the city issue bonds and receive new market tax credits.
“We make a very concerted effort to hire expertise in certain areas,” Woods said. “We get good lawyers who know how to deal with public entities and have that knowledge base. That’s very important to the city.”
Jaime Betbeze, an attorney with Maynard, Cooper & Gale, is currently representing Waste Management, which is fighting the city’s Solid Waste Authority in a $6 million breach of contract lawsuit. A U.S. District Court jury found in Waste Management’s favor, but the case was appealed by the authority and is currently awaiting a decision by a three-judge panel in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Brandyburg Firm was paid $30,987 and the Bell Law Firm was paid $3,440 for work in 2016.
City Council attorney Jim Rossler’s firm was also paid more than $98,000 over the last two years for liability defense work, which included the Solid Waste Authority and law enforcement, Woods said. In addition, Rossler was paid roughly $220,000 for his work with the council over the same time period.
The firm of Adams & Reese was paid the second most of any firm on the list over the past two years. The firm charged the city $458,948 in 2015 and $384,401 in 2016. Adams & Reese handles economic development agreements for the city, Woods said. For instance, the firm helped the city negotiate its contribution to the Wal-Mart distribution center, as well as set up deals with Meridian at the Port and the Shoppes at Bel Air. The firm also assists with legislative affairs and with the city’s federal grants, like the $14.5 million TIGER grant for Broad Street rehabilitation, Woods said.
Bradley S. Waterman billed the city for $190,666, according to records. Waterman served as special tax counsel for the city, Woods said, and handled one particular case where the city was accused by the Internal Revenue Service of improperly managing bond funds. Woods wouldn’t provide an original asking amount, but said the case had been settled for less than 1 percent of the amount sought.
In 2015, the city’s legal department actually brought in more money than it spent, Woods claims. The city received $4.8 million net payment from the BP oil spill settlement. The city initially took some heat for paying more than 30 percent of the $7.1 million total settlement in fees by allowing independent attorney Mary Beth Mantiply to take the case on contingency. A chunk of the settlement also went to Burr & Forman. The administration and City Council spent the remaining funds on new garbage trucks last year.