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Boulder City denied reduction in SLAPP fees

Boulder City’s attempt to reduce the $180,000 in attorney fees it was ordered to pay to six citizens after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the city wrongfully sued them was denied Monday.

Additionally, District Judge Steven Kosach awarded the residents $10,000 for fees accrued since the April 10 ruling that went in the residents’ favor. The city was looking to pay about $30,000 of the original $180,000 ordered.

“I believe the city tried to go down a path of reversible error, and the judge fought through it,” the residents’ attorney, former Boulder City Councilwoman Linda Strickland said. “It was the same argument. (The city) didn’t bring any new facts to the table.”

Strickland and her husband, Tracy, represented Daniel Jensen, Walt Rapp, Frank Fisher, Cynthia Harris, Nancy Nolette and James Douglass in the case.

The six of them were sued by the city after they circulated three ballot initiative petitions in 2010. The city sued to challenge the legality of the three initiatives, which limited city debt, established term limits for volunteer committees and prevented the city from owning more than one golf course.

Boulder City Attorney Dave Olsen said staff though the initiatives overstepped the city’s administrative authority and that naming the petitioners in a lawsuit was the only way to have a court examine the initiatives.

Olsen said he didn’t think any First Amendment rights were violated when the city took action, as all three initiatives made it on the ballot. He also said the city thought the initiatives could have prevented the city from doing its job. He added that the city was not trying to sue the petitioners, but instead sought declaratory relief about whether the initiatives were legal.

The city never got those questions answered, he said.

“We felt like the initiatives that were circulated authorized illegal activities, and we wanted to have a court evaluate those and tell us whether that was correct,” Olsen said. “The Stricklands have managed to turn everything around to show some allegations that we engaged in SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) activities.”

The city, represented by the law firm Lionel Sawyer &Collins, successfully argued in District Court in Clark County that it had the right to sue the petitioners to challenge the initiatives.

The Supreme Court overturned the rulings of three District Court judges, ruling that the city’s lawsuits were SLAPPs and the city could have challenged the initiatives by naming the secretary of state or another government entity as a defendant.

On June 5, Kosach ordered the city to pay the defendants’ attorney fees no later than July 5. But Olsen said the city thought $180,000 exceeded what was appropriate.

Strickland said three additional lawsuits were filed against the city after Kosach ruled that the residents were wrongfully sued. She also said the city tried to consolidate the attorney fees with compensatory damages from the three lawsuits during Monday’s hearing.

“Any first-year law student knows that you can’t combine attorney fees with compensatory damages,” she said. “It seemed to me that (the city was) desperate.”

According to Strickland, the city was billed by its attorney for 72 hours from April 10 until the end of July for work on the case. She said she billed her clients for 24½ hours of work from April 10 until the Sept. 8 hearing.

“The city billed the people of Boulder City approximately $50,000 from April 10 until the end of July,” she said. “I’ve never seen this kind of billing that we’ve seen in these cases. And the taxpayers are paying it.”

Olsen could not confirm how much the city paid for its attorney fees since April 10.

Strickland said the city had every opportunity to avoid the situation, but refused.

“Not sure if it’s arrogance, or just some lack of oversight and some billing extravaganza, but I do know that unfortunately this comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets, and our clients are taxpayers,” she said.

Olsen said the city had already paid about $200,000 for its attorney fees during the case, but strongly denied Strickland’s claim that the city went on a “billing spree.”

“I have no idea what she’s talking about. We retained excellent lawyers to represent us, but we didn’t go on any kind of billing spree,” he said. “In fact, Lionel Sawyer &Collins wrote off a substantial amount of attorney fees at the end of it.”

Steve Morris, who was contracted by the city to represent it after the original case, said the amount of money Boulder City spent was nothing out of the ordinary.

“When you get into litigation scenarios, there are going to be attorney fees,” he said. “I think Mrs. Strickland is doing that in an effort to try to bolster her own attorney fees.”

Morris said Strickland originally asked the court for $40,000 for her clients’ fees, but bumped the total to $575,000 when the Supreme Court came back with its ruling that favored the Stricklands’ clients. That total was denied.

“The court didn’t do that because, in large part, the Stricklands’ said, ‘Oh, look what the city paid Lionel Sawyer &Collins. They should pay us the same,’ ” Morris said.

He also added that Linda Strickland was hypocritical in her claim that the city wasted taxpayer dollars on the case.

“They (the Stricklands) say, ‘Oh what a waste of taxpayer money.’ But where do they think their fees are going to come from?” he said.

The city has approximately 30 days after the ruling to file an appeal with the Supreme Court, but Olsen said there hasn’t been any discussion about that. He added the City Council would have input on whether the city appeals.

If the city chooses to go that route, a decision may not come until the beginning of 2016, Strickland said.

Olsen was direct when asked if the city would have taken the same actions if it had to do it all over again.

“I’m sure everyone is pretty much exhausted by now and tired of this,” he said. “But honestly, if it would help to answer the questions, I would say yes.”

Contact reporter Steven Slivka at sslivka@bouldercityreview.com or at 702-586-9401. Follow @StevenSlivka on Twitter.

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