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Court sanctions lawyers over request for attorney's fees

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    NMU         CALIFORNIA         Freedom of Information         May 6, 2000    

Court sanctions lawyers over request for attorney’s fees

  • A Los Angeles lawyer representing the county in a public records dispute must pay $1,000 for filing a “meritless” request to recover attorney’s fees from the records requestor.

A California appeals court has sanctioned lawyers representing Los Angeles County for their “meritless” request for attorneys fees in a public-records dispute that saw the county win at trial but lose on appeal.

The Court of Appeal has ordered attorney Steven Renick and his Los Angeles law firm, Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, to pay a $1,000 fine to the clerk of court for requesting attorneys fees “even though he knew he had no reasonable basis to do so.”

Renick admitted to the court that he routinely files such requests, regardless of their merit, prompting the court to say the practice “reasonably creates the inference that [it] is designed to intimidates parties from legitimately exercising their statutory rights to petition this court for relief.”

The underlying suit involved a public records request made against Los Angeles County in July 1999 by Elgin Haynie, whose van was stopped and searched by county sheriff’s deputies looking for a criminal suspect in July 1999. Haynie was released at the scene without being charged. Less than two weeks later, Haynie requested whatever documents the sheriff’s office may have made in connection to his road-side detention, including transcripts and tapes of radio transmissions between dispatchers and deputies.

A deputy county attorney responded that the sheriff’s office had no documents that were responsive to Haynie’s request, but he did provide a narrative about the events in question from the perspective of the sheriff’s deputies involved. Haynie filed suit in state court in Los Angeles in November 1999, asking for an order to compel the sheriff’s office to turn over documents about his detention. The trial court denied Haynie’s request, saying the records were covered by an exemption protecting documents about criminal investigations from disclosure.

In its May 2, 2000, opinion, the appeals court, also in Los Angeles, distinguished the requested information into two groups: records created before Haynie’s detention and records created afterward. In reversing, the appeals court explained the “investigation” exemption could not be applied to records created before the detention because no prospect of criminal proceedings existed at that time. It also said that an exemption for documents prepared in anticipation of litigation did not apply because the documents were generated as part of a traffic stop involving Haynie and not to defend litigation against the county. The appeals court, however, said the exemptions did apply to records created after Haynie’s detention.

The appeals court also granted Haynie’s request for attorney’s fees because he had shown he was entitled to at least some of the requested records, regardless of whether any responsive documents actually exist. The appeals court was less generous to the county’s request for attorney’s fees, saying the county was entitled to reimbursement of fees only if Haynie’s request for records was frivolous. It clearly was not, the court found, adding the “county has needlessly encumbered this proceeding and has obstructed [Haynie’s] efforts to obtain access to public records.” The sanction order is to be reported to the state bar.

(Elgin Haynie v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles; Counsel: Robert Mann, Los Angeles)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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