Government attorneys play an extremely important role in law. Because they are part of the government, they are meant to serve the public good. They have a responsibility to uphold justice, and doing so does not always mean winning. Government attorneys are appointed to serve a higher purpose, not to fight tooth and nail for every dollar they can squeeze out of opponents.
However, a rather ambiguous Health & Safety Code clause in California has been abused, effectively standing in the way of justice. The clause requires “the [building] owner to pay all reasonable and actual costs.” The original intent of this legislation was to help cities recover the actual cost of making repairs during the urban blight of the 1980s. In most cases today, that intent has been forgotten.
One case from Alameda County, in which the court affirmed that the fee must be both reasonable and actual, has actually maintained the original intent of the clause. The ruling meant that the City Attorneys could not charge more than the actual fees incurred which are mostly their salaries. However, in other cases, courts have allowed for “reasonable” costs to supersede “actual” costs. Because the interpretation of what is reasonable is subjective, governmental prosecutors have been able to inflate costs to defendants, effectively misinterpreting the law for their own benefit.
The San Francisco case of Anne Kihagi has overtly demonstrated this perversion. In this case, despite the positive testimony of five accomplished building inspectors who had knowledge of and visited the landlord’s buildings, the judge awarded more than $1.25 million in penalties to the City based on the testimony of a single inspector – with no plumbing or electrical experience – who had never been to any of the buildings.
To make matters worse, the court then added “reasonable” legal fees that translated to approximately six times the actual salaries of these public prosecutors. By labeling them as “reasonable” costs, the court was legally able to pile on these ridiculous fees despite the true intent of “reasonable and actual costs,” netting a whopping $2.5 million. Is the City of San Francisco running a private litigation business?
There is one potential saving grace behind the word “reasonable”: setting a fee based on “similar attorney(s) with a similar reputation,” per the law. However, in the case of Anne Kihagi, this stipulation was ignored in favor of personal gain. The Deputy City Attorney knowingly allowed false evidence. Unfortunately that did not seem to influence any perception of “reputation.” Justice would hold that an attorney should not be well-paid for promoting false testimony. But justice was not the main goal in the case against Anne Kihagi. Furthermore, the fees of government prosecutors should not be compared to those of private, self-employed attorneys. The question can again be posed – is the City of San Francisco running a private litigation business?
This California law clearly leaves a lot to the imagination. Please help end this travesty by voting at annekihagisf.com to have the California Legislature evaluate the unintended ambiguity in its legislature.
For more information on Anne Kihagi and West 18 Properties, visit http://annekihagisf.com/.
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