Supreme Court Passes on Case Involving State Retention of Private Counsel

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to review a California Supreme Court ruling that permitted cities and counties to engage private attorneys for public nuisance litigation against lead paint defendants on a contingency fee basis.  See Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Santa Clara County, Calif., No. 10-546 (U.S. cert. denied 1/10/11).

Readers may recall our previous posts on the important issue of  the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation.  One case we posted on was County of Santa Clara v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, Cal., No. S163681 (7/26/10), in which 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.

The state supreme court permitted the use of contingency fee counsel with restrictions. 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. 

We noted that 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. Defendants sought cert review. In amicus filings, various trade organizations including the American Chemistry Council, the American Coatings Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, argued that the financial incentives inherent in contingency-fee agreements simply distort the decision-making of both the government lawyers and the private attorneys they retain. Inadequately grounded contingency fee arrangements distort the state's duty of even-handedness not only to defendants, but also to the public. The amici argued that public nuisance cases are not typical tort lawsuits because they claim to be pursued in the public interest. It violates due process for the type of personal financial assessment made by contingency fee private lawyers to impact the decisions in a public nuisance action brought in the government's sovereign capacity. The briefing also raised another important practical issue: the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines will block any meaningful inquiry into whether the government is actually exercising the appropriate control that he state court said would solve these issues.

These kinds of contingency fee prosecutors threaten to diminish the public's faith in the fairness of civil government prosecutions. These arrangements frequently result in allegations that government officials are doling out contingency fee agreements to lawyers who make substantial campaign contributions.


 

Use of Contingency Fee Private Counsel Appealed

A variety of business groups have weighed in as amici, asking the Supreme Court to recognize how contingency fee arrangements by California counties and cities pursuing lead paint litigation violated the due process rights of the defendants. Atlantic Richfield Co. v. County of Santa Clara, No. 10-546 (U.S., amicus curiae brief submitted 11/24/10).

Readers may recall our previous posts about how the California supreme court had taken a major step backward by modifying a 1985 decision that had 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, No. S163681 (Cal. 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 state 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 state 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 then, 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 a state may bring. 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 nuisance cases fall 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. 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, despite that, state supreme 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. The case would not have resulted 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.

While a heightened standard of neutrality was required for attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance cases on behalf of the government, that 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. .

The list of specific indicia of control identified by the state supreme court seem quite strained, however, and to elevate form over substance, and 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.  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”.

Defendants are seeking cert review. In amicus filings, various trade organizations including the American Chemistry Council, the American Coatings Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, have argued that the financial incentives inherent in contingency-fee agreements simply distort the decision-making of both the government lawyers and the private attorneys they retain. Inadequately grounded contingency fee arrangements distort the state's duty of even-handedness not only to defendants, but also to the public.  The amici argue that public nuisance cases are not typical tort lawsuits because they claim to be pursued in the public interest. It violates due process for the type of personal financial assessment made by contingency fee private lawyers impacts the decisions in a public nuisance action brought in the government's sovereign capacity. The briefing also raises another important practical issue: the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines will block any meaningful inquiry into whether the government is actually exercising the appropriate control that he state court said would solve these issues.

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.

California Supreme Court Agrees To Hear Contingent Fee Public Nuisance Issue

The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear a public nuisance case involving lead paint manufacturers that raises the important issue whether public entities can hire outside attorneys on a contingency fee basis in these kinds of cases. County of Santa Clara v. Superior Court (Atlantic Richfield), No. S163681 (Cal. S.Ct.).

In granting review last week, the Court stated: “This case presents the following issue: May a public entity retain private counsel to prosecute a public nuisance abatement action under a contingent fee agreement?”

Ten or so California cities and counties are plaintiffs in the case which accused several former lead paint manufacturers of fraud, strict liability, negligence, unfair business practices, and public nuisance. Eventually, the plaintiffs agreed to move forward with only the public nuisance question. In February, 2007, the defendants filed a motion to bar payment of contingency fees to private attorneys hired by the government plaintiffs. Under an agreement reached by the cities and counties, private counsel apparently were to receive only a small fee upfront, but then 17% of any net recovery.

The California superior court barred the public entities from compensating their private counsel through contingency fees. In April, 2008, the Sixth Appellate Court of Appeal overturned that decision, saying private counsel would only play a limited role in this particular litigation – so the arrangement was acceptable. The court of appeals' opinion tried to draw a distinction between situations where private counsel are performing tasks on behalf of and in the name of the government in a public nuisance abatement action – where private counsel must be absolutely neutral and cannot be compensated by a contingent fee arrangement – and the situation where private counsel are “merely assisting” government attorneys in the litigation of a public nuisance abatement action and are explicitly serving in a subordinate role. In the latter case, private counsel are not themselves acting in the name of the government and have no role in the balancing of interests that triggers the absolute neutrality requirement, the court stated. The defendants filed a petition for review.

When an attorney wields the power of the state in court, there are ethical and prudential concerns. Not only is a government lawyer's neutrality essential to a fair outcome for the litigants in the case in which he or she is involved, it is essential to the proper function of the judicial process as a whole. Our system relies for its validity on the confidence of society; without a belief by the people that the system is just and impartial, the concept of the rule of law cannot survive. When a government attorney has a personal interest in the litigation, the neutrality so essential to the system is violated. For this reason prosecutors and other government attorneys can be disqualified for having an interest in the case extraneous to their official function.

The justification for the prohibition against contingent fees seen in criminal actions has been extended to certain civil cases. In People ex rel. Clancy v. Superior Court, 39 Cal.3d 740, 218 Cal.Rptr. 24 (Cal. 1985), the Court did not adopt a per se ban on such contingency fees, but did note that there is a class of civil actions that demands the representative of the government be absolutely neutral. This requirement would preclude the use in that class of cases of a contingent fee arrangement.

The abatement of a public nuisance involves a balancing of interests. On the one hand is the interest of the people in ridding their community of the alleged obnoxious or dangerous condition; on the other hand is the interest of the landowner in using/selling his property or products. Thus, as with an eminent domain action, the abatement of a public nuisance involves a delicate weighing of values. Any financial arrangement that would tempt the government attorney to tip the scale cannot be tolerated, said Clancy. It will be interesting to see if the "merely assisting" distinction succeeds.

That type of distinction was adopted by the Rhode Island Supreme Court in State of Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Association, Inc., No. 2004-63-M.P. (R.I. July 1, 2008), found here. In that case, the fee agreement provided that, in return for their legal representation on behalf of the state in the lead paint litigation, counsel would be entitled to a fee reflecting 16 2/3 percent of any monies recovered. Although the Court ruled for the defendants on the merits, it addressed the fee issue as one of extreme public importance, and as capable of repetition but evading review. The Court noted that the propriety vel non of contingent fee agreements in the public sector is a much controverted and still developing area of the law. It concluded that the Attorney General is not precluded from engaging private counsel pursuant to a contingent fee agreement in order to assist in certain civil litigation, so long as the Office of Attorney General retains absolute and total control over all critical decision-making in any case in which such agreements have been entered into. Accordingly, in order to ensure that a contingent fee agreement is not adverse to the standards that an attorney representing the government must meet, it is vital that the Attorney General have absolute control over the course of any litigation originating in that office. The Attorney General’s discretionary decision-making must not be delegated to the control of outside counsel; rather, it is the outside counsel who must serve in a subordinate role.