Babcock and Marr: Justice for All Includes Low-Income Residents

At a recent meeting of the Costa Mesa City Council, Councilmember Jim Righeimer displayed a shocking misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the pro bono legal services provided in recently settled lawsuits against the City of Costa Mesa. Mr. Righeimer said the suits were only about the money going to the lawyers in the case. Mr. Righeimer is entitled to his opinions, but not his own set of facts.

For over 60 years, lawyers in Orange County have volunteered to provide free legal services to low income Orange County residents through the Public Law Center and the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. For example, volunteer lawyers, law students, paralegals and others donate each and every year pro bono legal services valued at approximately $20 million to low income Orange County residents referred to them by the Public Law Center.  This spirit of volunteerism and dedication by volunteer lawyers to the cause of access to justice is nothing unique to Orange County – it is replicated in every State in our nation. They do so not because they are “quote unquote pro bono law firms” who “go out and get pro bono awards and then turn around and send a bill” for attorneys’ fees as Mr. Righeimer claims, suggesting some sort of improper motivation.

Rather, they volunteer their time to help the indigent out of a profound sense of the importance of the rule of law, fundamental fairness and justice for all. The clients they represent include veterans, domestic violence survivors, seniors defrauded by scam artists, human trafficking victims and – as was the case here – men, women and children who find themselves homeless because of the paucity of safe, decent and affordable housing in Orange County.

While clients referred by the Public Law Center and the Legal Aid Society of Orange County are not charged a fee for the legal services they receive, California law is clear (and has been for decades) that legal services staff lawyers and pro bono volunteer lawyers who represent the prevailing party in a lawsuit can recover the reasonable value of their services from the other side. While this may frustrate Mr. Righeimer, any other rule would create an incentive for wrong-doers to harm the poor with impunity.

The Public Law Center and the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, along with other legal services organizations who represent low income individuals, regularly receive fees based on the reasonable value of their staff attorneys’ services as well as donations of fees from law firms recovered from the opposing party on cases we’ve referred to them. In this case, the Haynes and Boone law firm (which was honored as Public Law Center’s 2017 Law Firm of the Year at its Volunteers for Justice Dinner) is donating all of its fees from the settlement agreement to public interest law firms involved in the lawsuits. This money allows nonprofit programs to continue the necessary work of assisting low-income residents in this County.

If Mr. Righeimer is frustrated by the amount of money included in the settlement agreement for our and our co-counsel’s attorney’s fees, he need only look in the proverbial mirror. The lawsuits started over an ordinance that prevented residents from staying in Costa Mesa motels longer than 30 days, when the City had allowed motels to provide alternative low-income housing options for years due to City’s lack of affordable housing options. The lawsuit contended that the ordinance was part of a campaign to force the motels and its residents out of Costa Mesa to be replaced with luxury apartment complexes.

When the ordinance was first passed, then Mayor Righeimer acknowledged that the motel residents were financially challenged and some had mental problems, but his justification was “if you are living in a motel, you should be moving…you should be reminded every 28 days, this is not working in your life.”  In fact, a number of the residents displaced were families of very limited means and disabled persons.  When a 72 year old wheelchair bound woman dying of liver failure asked for an exception to the 30 day limitation to stay longer, the City denied her request, forcing her to move from her convenient, first floor apartment at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn.  It was this unbelievable insensitivity to the homeless in Costa Mesa that prompted legal action, not a desire for legal fees.

The City could have discussed settlement when plaintiffs got an injunction against the Ordinance in March 2015, but instead elected to employ a “scorched earth” litigation strategy for years, justifiably losing nearly every motion and challenge, never taking settlement seriously until a new City Council was elected in November 2016 and even then waiting until September 2017 to engage in serious discussions.  Again, if Mr. Righeimer wants to know why the attorney’s fees were high, he need only look at the City’s litigation strategy and refusal to discuss settlement for three years.

Recently in Orange County, federal court lawsuits, including one filed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County on behalf of homeless persons who were living in the Santa Ana riverbed area, have received considerable attention and demonstrate the dire need for regional solutions to address the issues of affordable housing and homelessness. We hope that the recent settlement of the lawsuits against the City of Costa Mesa will point out the importance of municipal entities being part of the regional solution and not part of the problem.

Kenneth W. Babcock, Executive Director & General Counsel, Public Law Center. In his 18 years as head of the Public Law Center, Ken Babcock has significantly expanded PLC to provide pro bono legal assistance to more Orange County low-income residents.

Kate Marr, Executive Director, Legal Aid Society of Orange County. Legal Aid’s Executive Director Kate Marr has 17 years of experience managing programs and organizations, litigating and advising clients at several legal services programs in southern California.

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