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In losing pension case against former police officers, city must dig deep to cover legal bills

ST. PETERSBURG — The rising price tag of a lost legal battle against former police officers has led to sticker shock at St. Petersburg City Hall.

The police pension board voted Tuesday not to appeal nearly $1 million in legal fees. Although city attorneys argued the fees were highly questionable and excessive, they told the board the odds of winning on appeal weren't good.

"If we thought we would prevail, we'd appeal," said City Attorney John Wolfe. "While I think the fees are much greater than what should have been awarded, I don't want to pay any more of them."

Last month, Pinellas County Circuit Judge Bruce Boyer awarded the fees to Kwall Showers & Barack, a politically connected Clearwater law firm that handled the case of 351 former St. Petersburg police officers who sued to get pension payments the city had denied them.

It turned into a four-year legal fight that ended in October when the city dropped the case after losing an appeal. The city agreed to pay $1.5 million in damages. In addition, another judge decided in May that the city must pay more than $500,000 in interest.

Yet it's the $959,019 in legal fees, which pushes the final tab past $3 million, that's the hardest for city officials to accept.

"Legal fees are supposed to be for actual legal fees," said council member Karl Nurse. "Not for, 'Let's send a bunch of money to the opposing attorneys for the fun of it.' "

Legal fees are often settled quickly and amicably after a case is over. Not so here. The city spent months disputing the 791 hours billed by three attorneys, Jean Kwall, a former general counsel of the Pinellas County sheriff under Everett Rice; her husband Louis Kwall, a former Pinellas Republican chairman who had worked on Rice's sheriff's campaign; and Ryan Barack. Assistant City Attorney Jane Wallace spent a week just to sift through the time sheets to study the attorneys' claimed expenses.

Wallace found many entries that implied the lawyers padded the hours they actually worked.

About 210 of Barack's 330 entries, for instance, duplicate the entries of the lead attorney on the case, Jean Kwall. Numerous duplications contained the same typographical errors and misspellings of the same names on the same dates, Wallace said.

Take April 22, 2008. On that date, both Kwall and Barack billed for this item: "Receive and review letter from Ms. Issacs." Two weeks later, they billed again for a letter, this time to "Ms. Isaacs." Later that month, they billed a third time to review a draft letter to "Ms. Isaccs."

Three entries, filed independently, providing the same different spellings of one person, charging for the same task.

Wallace concluded it must have been Barack who copied the entries from Kwall. The city paid attorney Thomas Gonzalez $3,300 as an expert to testify on the entries, and he concluded there was "substantial duplication" between the time sheets of Kwall and Barack.

During an April deposition, Barack said he contemporaneously noted the times he worked onto a legal pad, then later entered them into an Excel spreadsheet. Yet he said the legal pad showing these original times was shredded, making it difficult for the city to verify Barack worked the 209 hours he claimed.

"Barack's time sheets are not credible and should be disregarded," Wallace said in her closing argument for the city. "It is highly improbable without duplication, that two attorneys would repeatedly make precisely the same typographical errors."

Wallace found other problems, such as that Jean Kwall and Barack charged for clerical tasks, which Gonzalez said would have been more appropriately done at a cheaper price by a paralegal.

Attorneys at Kwall Showers & Barack didn't return phone calls on Monday and Tuesday seeking comment. In Kwall's closing argument in April, she said Gonzalez wasn't an expert in legal fees and had a self-interest in the case because he represents the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in another case where the firm's fees are pending.

"The party opposing a fee petition has the burden of pointing out with specificity which hours should be deducted," she wrote. "(Gonzalez) failed to do so."

Kwall claimed the class action suit produced 24 volumes of documents amounting to more than 5,000 pages. The city conducted a "scorched earth defense" that led the law firm to work "more hours in this case than would otherwise have been necessary."

In his June 23 order, Boyer ruled decidedly in favor of Kwall. He found that the firm's charges were reasonable; that the work was difficult and required a high degree of legal skill; and that the case prevented Kwall from accepting other work.

The city's police pension board will pay the $2 million in damages and interest. It will also pay half the legal fees. The city will pay for the fees by using money from its self-insurance fund, which has already taken a hit this year. The fund paid $547,408 to the three widows of the police officers killed in the line of duty this year.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

In losing pension case against former police officers, city must dig deep to cover legal bills 07/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 7:47am]

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