EXCLUSIVE: City settles homeless case for $1K; Legal fees $72K

EXCLUSIVE: City settles homeless case for $1K; Legal fees $72K

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Two and a half years after DeOccupy Honolulu sued the city in federal court for violating the civil rights of homeless people by seizing their belongings, the city has settled the case for $1,000.

But the legal fees are costing Honolulu taxpayers more than 70 times that.

Three years ago, the city began citing homeless people and DeOccupy protesters on the sidewalks at Thomas Square and seizing their belongings.

So the group filed a lawsuit on behalf of four homeless people, saying their civil rights were violated because the city seized their property without the required 24-hour notice, improperly destroyed their belongings and failed to give them quick access to retrieve their impounded stuff.

"It would be better if they would just realize that they're making a mistake, this is the wrong way to proceed. And unfortunately a lawsuit was the only way to get them to realize," said Dave Mulinix of DeOccupy Honolulu.

The lawsuit forced the city to change its procedures and keep better track of the belongings of homeless people. Two years later, the city agreed to settle the case and pay the four homeless people $1,000 for their belongings but did not admit to any wrongdoing. But then both sides spent more than five months haggling in federal court over how much money the city should pay DeOccupy lawyers, who were given "prevailing party" status by the court and entitled to legal fees.

"As a taxpayer, I'm not pleased to be paying my salary in a case like this. I would rather the city do things correctly," said attorney Brian Brazier. Federal Magistrate Judge Kevin Chang awarded Brazier and his law partner Richard Holcomb $72,176 in legal fees. The two attorneys had asked the federal court for three times more in legal fees, for a total of $220,101.

Chang also ruled that Brazier's reasonable hourly rate was $185, not the $250 he requested. Chang also decided that Holcomb's reasonable hourly rate should be $200, far less than the $355 he asked for.

Brazier said he and his law partner spent close to 1,000 hours working on the case that dragged on in court for more than two years.

"The city was not willing to admit any responsibility and they were fighting tooth and nail. And if they were fighting tooth and nail to defend their unconstitutional policies, the only response that we've got is to fight tooth and nail back," Brazier said.

Federal Judge Michael Seabright rejected the city's argument that Brazier and his co-counsel should be paid no legal fees because they made a lot of legal mistakes.

"Although the court agrees that plaintiffs' counsels' numerous missteps in this action show a fundamental lack of experience and/or understanding of federal litigation, the court rejects that this conduct warrants a complete denial of attorneys' fees," Seabright said in a March 9 ruling.

City Corporation Counsel Donna Leong, the city's top civil attorney, released a statement that said, "U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright ruled in favor of the City on all of the counts and found no constitutional law violations. The City's Stored Property Ordinance remains in full force and effect today as it did on the day it was signed into law."

To avoid further costly litigation, however, Leong said the city decided to settle the case by agreeing to pay the $1,000 amount.

"Although the city continues to disagree with the court's ruling on attorneys' fees, after considering the overall best interests of the city, the city decided not to appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals," Leong said.

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