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.