Taking Government Contingency-Fee Lawsuits to the Supreme Court

By November 30, 2010Briefly Legal, General

As reported below, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is the latest attorney general to hire private-sector attorneys to sue a company on a contingency basis. Unfortunately, it’s not only state attorneys general who allow profit-seeking trial lawyers to undertake the government’s business. City and county officials have done the same thing.

The most prominent example comes from the oft-bizarre government of Santa Clara County and its running mates in California. In 2000,  Santa Clara and nine other cities and counties retained Motley Rice and three other law firms to bring a lead pigment public nuisance action against a group of manufacturers. The retainer agreement specified that the government would “retain final authority over all aspects” of the litigation, an arrangement that is difficult to maintain in practice — “How’s the case going?” “Oh, good. I’ll fill you in later” — and deeply suspect on policy grounds. Indeed, the trial court held that a previous ruling in the well-known Clancy case (People ex rel. Clancy v. Superior Court, 39 Cal.3d 740) precluded the government from hiring lawyers on a contingency-fee basis.

The California Court of Appeal concluded otherwise, holding that the “control” language in the retainer agreements means that the outside lawyers are merely “assisting” the government in a subordinate role and lack any decision-making authority or control over the case. This July, the California Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s ruling.

The manufacturers are now appealing the California ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups last week joined in an amicus brief in support of the appeal in Atlantic Richfield et al. vs. Santa Clara County et al. The amicus brief, available here, frames the discussion:

The Supreme Court of California held that govern-mental plaintiffs pursuing civil public nuisance prosecutions brought “in the name of the People of the State of California” may do so under a contin-gency fee retainer agreement with outside plaintiffs’ law firms in which the government entities agree to compensate the law firms by paying them 17 percent of any recovery. This brief addresses the following question:

1. Whether contingency fee agreements that give private prosecutors a direct, personal, and substantial pecuniary interest in the outcome of governmental prosecutions seeking to vindicate the sovereign’s interests in public nuisance cases violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Yes, yes they do.

Others joining the brief are the American Chemistry Council, American Coatings Association, National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, Property Casualty Insurers Association, and the Public Nuisance Fairness Coalition. Filing on our behalf is the Houston office of Gardere, Wynne, Sewell LLP. For more background, see the NAM’s Manufacturing Law Center’s entry. We’ve blogged previously on the issue here.

Leave a Reply