Council President Cienki decries the ruling, says Town Council will consider appeal.
By Elizabeth F. McNamara
Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl ordered the town to pay $41,905 in legal fees earlier this week for the six-day trial last fall after which McGuirl ruled the town had knowingly and willfully violated the Open Meetings Act in the appointment of Town Manager Gayle Corrigan among other actions.
When Judge McGuirl made that ruling, she ordered the town to pay legal fees to attorney Elizabeth Wiens, who tried the case on behalf of the East Greenwich firefighters. The other part of the case, in which the judge ruled firefighter James Perry had been fired illegally and needed to be reinstated, is not covered by the legal fees ruling.*
McGuirl said Monday this was the first time she had had to rule on a legal fees motion, noting that the two sides have in the past worked it out between themselves.
Town Council President Sue Cienki responded to the judge’s ruling in an email to residents Thursday evening:
On Monday, Superior Court Judge McGuirl issued a decision to award nearly $42,000 in legal fees to the East Greenwich Firefighters’ Union for litigation involving the Town Council’s Open Meetings Act violations. We are deeply disappointed with this decision. The Union’s attorney, Liz Wiens, initially claimed that her services for just the OMA portion of the lawsuit were worth $55,000. We believed that number was drastically inflated, and argued that the time Ms. Wiens spent on the OMA portion of the suit was far less than she claimed. The Town and Ms. Wiens were unable to reach an agreement on appropriate fees and Judge McGuirl ultimately set the fee at $41,905. This demands further Council discussion and we intend to explore our options, including appeal, on Monday evening in executive session.
This follows the revelation earlier this month that the town paid $104,000 for legal services – including $15,000 for the James Perry litigation – to the law firm Whelan Corrente Flanders Kinder and Siket for work billed between August and November. Town Solicitor David D’Agostino tried the Perry–OMA case for the town.
In an interview Thursday, Wiens said she went through her hourly entries and separated out the OMA work from the Perry work as much as she thought fair. The judge then reviewed the same entries and further reduced the time for the OMA violations, according to Wiens. For instance, if Wiens listed one day as six hours total on the East Greenwich trial with four on OMA and two on Perry, McGuirl split the six in half, three on OMA and three on Perry.
According to Wiens, McGuirl also questioned her initial $350/hour fee, and asked both lawyers to research the going rate for OMA legal work. In response, Wiens offered to cut her fee to $250/hour. D’Agostino took that offer to the Town Council and they refused. McGuirl then stepped in and ruled the town needed to reimburse Wiens at a rate of $300/hour, for a total of $41,905.
Read an email from Wiens to D’Agostino here outlining her $250/hour proposal: Wiens email on legal fees.
* The default rule is that parties have to pay their own legal fees. But the OMA has a section saying that the municipality has to pay the legal fees if it is in violation of the act. Because there are no real damages awarded under the OMA (others than a $1,000 penalty), boards may have little incentive to comply.
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