California Supreme Court Amends Rules for Government Retention of Private Contingent Fee Counsel

The California supreme court has taken a major step backward by modifying a 1985 decision that had properly limited the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation. County of Santa Clara v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, Cal., No. S163681 (7/26/10). 

A group of public entities composed of various California counties and cities were prosecuting a public-nuisance action against numerous businesses that manufactured lead paint. Defendants moved to bar the public entities from compensating their privately retained counsel by means of contingent fees. The lower court, relying upon People ex rel. Clancy v. Superior Court, 39 Cal.3d 740 (1985), ordered that the public entities were barred from compensating their private counsel by means of any contingent-fee agreement, reasoning that under Clancy, all attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance actions must be “absolutely neutral.”

The supreme court acknowledged that Clancy arguably supported defendants' position favoring a bright-line rule barring any attorney with a financial interest in the outcome of a case from representing the interests of the public in a public-nuisance abatement action. The court proceeded to engage in a reexamination of the rule in Clancy, however, finding it should be "narrowed," in recognition of both (1) the wide array of public-nuisance actions (and the corresponding diversity in the types of interests implicated by various prosecutions), and (2) the different means by which prosecutorial duties may be delegated to private attorneys supposedly without compromising either the integrity of the prosecution or the public's faith in the judicial process.

The court had previously concluded that for purposes of evaluating the propriety of a contingent-fee agreement between a public entity and a private attorney, the neutrality rules applicable to criminal prosecutors were equally applicable to government attorneys prosecuting certain civil cases. The court had noted that a prosecutor's duty of neutrality stems from two fundamental aspects of his or her employment. As a representative of the government, a prosecutor must act with the impartiality required of those who govern. Second, because a prosecutor has as a resource the vast power of the government, he or she must refrain from abusing that power by failing to act evenhandedly.

But now, the court concluded that to the extent Clancy suggested that public-nuisance prosecutions always invoke the same constitutional and institutional interests present in a criminal case, that analysis was "unnecessarily broad" and failed to take into account the wide spectrum of cases that fall within the public-nuisance rubric. In the present case, found the court, both the types of remedies sought and the types of interests implicated differed significantly from those involved in Clancy and, accordingly, invocation of the strict rules requiring the automatic disqualification of criminal prosecutors was unwarranted.

The court described a range of cases; criminal cases require complete neutrality. In some ordinary civil cases, neutrality is not a concern when the government acts as an ordinary party to a controversy, simply enforcing its own contract and property rights against individuals and entities that allegedly have infringed upon those interests. The present case fell between these two extremes on the spectrum of neutrality required of a government attorney. The case was not an “ordinary” civil case in that the public entities' attorneys were appearing as representatives of the public and not as counsel for the government acting as an ordinary party in a civil controversy. A public-nuisance abatement action must be prosecuted by a governmental entity and may not be initiated by a private party unless the nuisance is personally injurious to that private party. The case was being prosecuted on behalf of the public, and, accordingly, the concerns identified in Clancy as being inherent in a public prosecution were, indeed, implicated.

But, the court found that the interests affected in this case were not similar in character to those invoked by a criminal prosecution or the nuisance action in Clancy.  This case would not result in an injunction that prevents the defendants from continuing their current business operations. The challenged conduct (the production and distribution of lead paint) has been illegal in the state since 1978. Accordingly, whatever the outcome of the litigation, no ongoing business activity would be enjoined. Nor would the case prevent defendants from exercising any First Amendment right. Although liability may be based in part on prior commercial speech, the remedy would not involve enjoining current or future speech, said the court.

With the public-nuisance abatement action being prosecuted on behalf of the public, the attorneys prosecuting this action, although not subject to the same stringent conflict-of-interest rules governing the conduct of criminal prosecutors or adjudicators, were held to be subject to a heightened standard of ethical conduct applicable to public officials acting in the name of the public — standards that would not be invoked in an ordinary civil case.  That is,  to ensure that an attorney representing the government acts evenhandedly and does not abuse the unique power entrusted in him or her in that capacity — and that public confidence in the integrity of the judicial system is not thereby undermined — a heightened standard of neutrality is required for attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance cases on behalf of the government.

The court then determined that this heightened standard of neutrality is not always compromised by the hiring of contingent-fee counsel to assist government attorneys in the prosecution of a public-nuisance abatement action.  Use of private counsel on a contingent-fee basis is permissible in such cases if neutral, conflict-free government attorneys retain the power to control and supervise the litigation.  In so finding, the court downplayed the reality that the public attorneys'  decision-making conceivably could be influenced by their professional reliance upon the private attorneys' expertise and a concomitant sense of obligation to those attorneys to ensure that they receive payment for their many hours of work on the case.

To pass muster, neutral government attorneys must retain and exercise the requisite control and supervision over both the conduct of private attorneys and the overall prosecution of the case. Such control of the litigation by neutral attorneys supposedly will provide a safeguard against the possibility that private attorneys unilaterally will engage in inappropriate prosecutorial strategy and tactics geared to maximize their monetary reward. Accordingly, when public entities have retained the requisite authority in appropriate civil actions to control the litigation and to make all critical discretionary decisions, the impartiality required of government attorneys prosecuting the case on behalf of the public has been maintained, said  the court.

The list of specific indicia of control identified by the court seem quite strained, and to elevate form over substance, written agreements over human nature. The authority to settle the case involves a paramount discretionary decision and is an important factor in ensuring that defendants' constitutional right to a fair trial is not compromised by overzealous actions of an attorney with a pecuniary stake in the outcome. The court found that retention agreements between public entities and private counsel must specifically provide that decisions regarding settlement of the case are reserved exclusively to the discretion of the public entity's own attorneys. Similarly, such agreements must specify that any defendant that is the subject of such litigation may contact the lead government attorneys directly, without having to confer with contingent-fee counsel.

But in reality, even if the control of private counsel by government attorneys is viable in theory, it fails in application because private counsel in such cases are hired based upon their expertise and experience, and therefore always will assume a primary and controlling role in guiding the course of the litigation, rendering illusory the notion of government “control”.  The concurring opinion questioned whether public attorneys under all foreseeable circumstances will be able to exercise the independent supervisory judgment the majority concludes is essential if private counsel are to be retained under contingent fee agreements. 

The court noted that the issues all arose under its authority to regulated the practice of law, and no statutes or state constitutional provisions were at issue, which may distinguish the case from the issue in other states.

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