County disputes attorney fees in jail access case
A two-year-long legal battle over access for jail inmates and their attorneys came to an end in July, with the state Supreme Court handing defense counsel a victory over Nevada County.
But a subsequent dispute over how much the county will have to pay in legal fees to defense counsel remains up in the air. Nevada County Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson heard argument from both parties Friday, but took the matter under submission.
The fight over what constituted a “contact visit” began in early 2013, when the county jail began limiting attorney-client visits to a room where they are separated by a glass partition — in what was called a “radical deviation” from past practice.
Five local criminal defense attorneys filed a motion to force the Sheriff’s Office to allow contact visits at Wayne Brown Correctional Facility, arguing the jail was violating a basic Sixth Amendment right — the right to counsel. But the Sheriff’s Office and its jail staff argued the restriction was allowed due to legitimate security issues with a significant increase in prisoners due to realignment and, at the same time, a decrease in its budget.
Anderson issued a ruling in August 2013 that affirmed the court’s jurisdiction over the issue and upheld inmates’ rights to contact visits.
A detainee has the right to meet with counsel in a barrier-free room unless there is a specific justification for a limitation, Anderson wrote, adding that in the six cases before him, the evidence presented supported the importance of “unfettered” contact.
Anderson ordered that contact visits be made available absent any specific circumstances. But that ruling was placed on hold for nearly 18 months after the Third District Court of Appeals granted a stay order.
In February of this year, the appellate court heard arguments and then ruled against the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office in April. The appellate court subsequently granted a request to publish its opinion, meaning it can be used as a legal precedent statewide.
Two of the attorneys involved in fighting the case, Stephen Munkelt and Jennifer Granger, filed a motion for award of attorney fees, arguing that while they were paid as indigent counsel (at $70 an hour) to represent their clients during the criminal proceedings, they were not paid to litigate the jail access issue.
Munkelt argued in his motion that the time spent on the jail access issue should be paid to the attorneys at their standard rate at the least, but that a fair market rate would actually be based on what would be charged by a civil rights attorney in the Sacramento region. Munkelt then argued that those figures should be adjusted even higher due to the difficulty of the case and the burden it placed on the attorneys, among other factors.
In a subsequent declaration, Munkelt acknowledged some billing errors, but argued that the decision to handle the case as he did saved the county and the attorneys a great deal of time and money.
Munkelt’s motion requested a total for each attorney that included services provided in Superior Curt as well as in the Court of Appeal — with the enhancements, $41,400 for Granger and $107,985 for Munkelt.
The attorney for Nevada County, Deborah Pernice Knefel, said the requested enhancements were “unconscionable,” adding that Munkelt is inflating his hourly rate by nearly eight times the rate for indigent counsel.
In her opposition to his motion, she suggested a more appropriate award would be $11,775 to Granger and $29,400 to Munkelt.
“Our argument is … his attorney fees were being paid,” she told Anderson in court Friday. “There is no enhanced financial burden that justifies the multiplier he is requesting. This windfall is not appropriate.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.
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