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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Sewer District in Mudbath With Lawyers

TROY, Mo. (CN) - A judge has doubled the attorney's fees the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District must pay to a law firm that successfully sued the district over its stormwater fees. Now $4.83 million is due to Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale of St. Louis, and with both MSD and Greensfelder appealing, that figure could go higher.

The figure includes a $2.08 million basic legal fee, doubled to $4.1 million; $192,000 in fees that were not doubled and $471,000 in expenses, including expert witnesses, photocopying, filing fees, courier and travel expenses.

The sewer district argued that Greensfelder's fees should be $1.15 million, and blasted the law firm in a statement.

"The request by Greensfelder to double their fees, which MSD believes were already excessive, underscores that this case has been more about money than it has been about the public good," the statement said. "The end result will be that the public continues to suffer from inequitable and insufficient stormwater services, while the lawyers reap an unprecedented multi-million dollar windfall."

Richard Hardcastle, lead attorney for Greensfelder on the case, shot back with his own statement.

"The Court found that the attorneys' fees requested were reasonable because plaintiffs benefited 480,000 taxpayers by bringing this lawsuit, and if MSD had the money or resources to pay a judgment, the Court would have ordered MSD to refund to the taxpayers the $90 million it already collected," Hardcastle said.

"MSD's continuing complaints about the payment of plaintiffs' attorneys' fees and costs ring hollow in light of the fact that MSD could have avoided them by following the law and putting the Stormwater User Charge to a vote as required by our Constitution."

In March 2008, MSD began collecting a stormwater fee based on the area that a ratepayer's property could not absorb, such as rooftops and driveways.

Greensfelder sued on behalf of three ratepayers, claiming the fees violated the Hancock Amendment, which requires a public vote on new taxes. The case became a class action, embracing MSD's 519,000 stormwater customers.

Lincoln County Circuit Judge Dan Dildine ruled in July 2010 that the fees were unconstitutional, but did not require the district to refund the $90 million it had collected since 2008.

Greensfelder appealed, seeking $90 million in refunds.

MSD appealed, trying to keep it.

In its request to double the attorneys' fees, Greensfelder argued that it stood to make nothing if it lost the case, while MSD's lawyers would get paid no matter the outcome.

Greensfelder also pointed out that its work saved ratepayers $300 million.

Judge Dildine cited court rulings in seven states and a federal case to support his decision.

An MSD spokesman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that if Dildine's ruling on the stormwater charge stands, it could probably pay the attorney's fees out of operating funds.

MSD has reverted to its previous method of charging a small monthly fee for stormwater services. It said it had to cut $15.5 million from its stormwater budget due to Dildine's July 2010 ruling.

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