Superior Court judge rules county must pay defense attorneys more than $80K in jail access case
A Nevada County judge has ruled that the county must pay two defense attorneys more than $82,000 for their role in a jail access case that lasted two years and went to the state appellate court.
The legal battle that began in early 2013 came to a conclusion in July, with the state Supreme Court handing defense counsel a victory over Nevada County.
The attorneys then filed a motion to be awarded attorney fees; Superior Court Judge Tom Anderson heard argument from both parties but had taken the matter under submission.
On Friday, Anderson issued a ruling that called the county’s policies “wrong-headed,” and that awarded Nevada City-based attorneys Jennifer Granger and Stephen Munkelt a total of $82,680.
“We are, of course, very pleased the court recognized the value of the services we provided, not to just to (our) individual clients, but to the whole statewide community,” Munkelt said. “By doing that the court is encouraging others to take on the cause of fighting injustice or mismanagement that may happen in the future.”
The county could appeal the ruling; assistant county counsel Amanda Uhrhammer declined to comment Tuesday, saying her office had just received the ruling and was evaluating it.
The fight over what constitutes a “contact visit” began in early 2013, when Wayne Brown Correctional Facility 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 including Granger and Munkelt filed a motion to force the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office to allow contact visits at the county jail, arguing it was violating a basic Sixth Amendment right — the right to counsel. The Sheriff’s Office and its jail staff argued the restriction was allowed due to legitimate security issues, but Anderson ruled the court had 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 in his ruling, adding that the evidence supported the importance of “unfettered” contact.
Anderson ordered that contact visits be made available absent any specific circumstances; that ruling was placed on hold for nearly 18 months after the Third District Court of Appeal granted a stay order. The appellate court ruled against the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office in April of this year, subsequently granting a request to publish its opinion so that it could be used as a legal precedent statewide.
Munkelt and Granger then 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 criminal proceedings, they were not paid to litigate the jail access issue.
Munkelt argued that a fair market rate would be based on what would be charged by a civil rights attorney in the Sacramento region — and 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.
The requested payment for services provided in Superior Court, as well as in the Court of Appeal, totaled $41,400 for Granger and $107,985 for Munkelt.
The attorney for Nevada County, Deborah Pernice Knefel, said in her opposition that the amounts requested were “unconscionable,” and suggesting a more appropriate award would be $11,775 to Granger and $29,400 to Munkelt.
In the ruling issued Friday, Anderson wrote that the attorneys “vindicated an important right, as endorsed by the Court of Appeal, that this litigation was necessary to enforce a fundamental right of in-custody defendants” and therefore conferred a significant public benefit as well.
Anderson ruled that Munkelt and Granger should be paid at their standard billable rate for local court matters, but that they could bill at the higher regional rate for the appellate court process.
He also ruled they could apply a multiplier because it is meant to “entice competent counsel to undertake difficult public interest cases.” Anderson said that in this instance, such a multiplier was appropriate because the Sheriff’s Office “inappropriately” precluded access, and because the defense attorneys “overcame intransigent opposition” and achieved favorable results.
Based on those factors, Anderson ordered the county to pay Granger $22,275, with $60,405 for Munkelt.
The county must also, of course, pay its outside counsel for its work on the case; the Nevada County Board of Supervisors had approved a $100,000 figure earlier this year, which would not include the time spent by county counsel in local court.
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4229.
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