Homeless lawyers seek legal fees for constitutional complaint
October 9, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
The two lawyers who sued the city of San Luis Obispo for unconstitutional treatment of the homeless are seeking $148,727 in legal fees from the city for the civil case.
In April, attorneys Saro Rizzo and Stew Jenkins filed a lawsuit accusing the city of San Luis Obispo and its chief of police of discrimination, harassment and the criminalization of homeless people. Following a decision by a superior court judge that the city’s treatment of the homeless was unconstitutional, the San Luis Obispo City Council agreed to dismiss all tickets given this year to homeless residents for sleeping in their vehicles.
Laws permit attorneys who undertake cases on behalf of the poor and downtrodden to request attorney’s fees if they win the case. If they lose, they would get nothing.
At a rate of $350 an hour, Rizzo and Jenkins have calculated their fees for the civil case at $148,727.
Both Rizzo and Jenkins donated their services while defending their clients in the criminal matters related to sleeping in vehicles, which at $350 an hour would come to approximately $60,000, and they are not requesting reimbursement.
Three local attorneys, Babak Naficy, David Fisher and Michael Blank, submitted declarations to the court asking for approval of the fees.
“The importance of due process rights established by the work of Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Rizzo in this case for all citizens using city streets cannot be underestimated,” Fisher says in his declaration.
Michael Blank is the directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance in San Luis Obispo, a group with a mission to fight for justice and individual rights.
“I believe that Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Rizzo have, by bringing this proceeding, made a significant contribution to helping the city of San Luis Obispo (and the surrounding communities who have followed this case) take significant steps toward becoming a community where all people are treated with dignity and respect, and guaranteed their fundamental rights,” Blank says in his declaration.
City officials have said they will oppose the request for attorney’s fees. San Luis Obispo City Councilman John Ashbaugh said on Sept. 27 on the Dave Congalton show that the city would fight against paying fees related to the homeless lawsuits. He also claimed that Jenkins and Rizzo filed the lawsuit without first attempting to discuss the ordinance with the city.
However, Jenkins and Rizzo did attempt to work with the city before filing their suit.
On March 19, Jenkins asked the council to suspend its sleeping vehicle ordinance, dismiss pending citations, expunge convictions and return fines because of legal issues with the wording of the ordinance.
The next day, during a March 20 council meeting, City Attorney Christine Dietrick said that the city expected to beat any challenges noting that this type of ordinance was facially (on face not application) upheld in another case. Council members agreed with her and voiced their approval of the nightly raids.
Last month, again amid allegations by Jenkins that city staff’s proposed plan to stop homeless from sleeping in their vehicles could have legal ramifications, city Attorney Christine Dietrick said she stood behind the legality of the new ordinance and saw no reason to delay a vote while the it is reworked to correct the issues Jenkins pointed out.
The council voted 3-2 to approve the new ordinance without further review. Councilwoman Kathy Smith and Councilman Dan Carpenter dissented.
When asked by Dave Congalton if he supports Dietrick and agrees with her legal advice on the homeless ordinances, Ashbaugh said, “Absolutely, she is amazing.”
San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall will hear arguments for and against the payment of attorney fees on Oct. 25 at 9 a.m.
Crandall is the same judge who in July ruled that San Luis Obispo’s treatment of the homeless was unconstitutional and barred police from ticketing people for sleeping in their vehicles.
Dietrick responded by calling Crandall’s decision “judicial misinterpretation.”
The city council agreed, “overruled” Crandall and rewrote the ordinance.