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City ordered to pay $1.6M in legal fees after former prosecutor won millions in wrongful-termination case

Earlier this year, the city of San Diego was ordered to pay $3.9 million to a former prosecutor who claimed she was wrongfully terminated. Now a judge has ordered the city to pay more than $1.6 million to her lawyers.

Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright said in a tentative ruling that lawyers for former Assistant City Attorney Marlea Dell’Anno should collect up to $800 an hour for their legal work.

“Taking everything into account, and based on the court’s own knowledge and familiarity with the legal market, the court finds the following hourly rates appropriate,” Enright wrote, before spelling out pay scales for each lawyer.

The legal fees only cover the plaintiff’s costs. The city has spent at least $500,000 on outside lawyers in their losing effort to defend the case.

Lawyers for Dell’Anno and the city presented oral arguments defending and rejecting the proposed fees at a Friday hearing. Enright asked questions of both sides before saying he would issue a final ruling sometime later.

In his initial decision, the judge trimmed the number of hours submitted for reimbursement by the hundreds, agreeing with arguments presented by city lawyers that the amount of time they dedicated to the case was inflated.

Enright shaved Josh Gruenberg’s hours by nearly 200, ruling that he should be paid for 721 hours. Two other attorneys who worked on the case also saw the number of hours they claimed reduced, one by 19.5 hours and one by 8 hours.

“In the context of this litigation, the court finds the remaining hours to be reasonable,” Enright ruled.

The judge rejected a request from Gruenberg to approve a multiplier effect, which allows plaintiffs to collect exponentially more for their legal work when the case is notably complex and the risk of losing is higher than usual.

“Here, counsel’s rates are in line with the rates charged by other counsel in employment actions, which are presumably taken on a contingency basis,” he ruled. “Thus, their rates already take into account the risk and delay in payment.”

Dell’Anno is a career litigator who rose to the rank of assistant city attorney under former City Attorney Jan Goldsmith.

Dell’Anno argued in her lawsuit that she was terminated in late 2015 for refusing to file criminal charges against San Diego attorney Cory Briggs, a prominent critic of Goldsmith.

She said she also resisted pursuing at least one other case, saying the charge was not warranted.

Testimony from city witnesses, including Goldsmith, alleged that Dell’Anno was a poor manager and that she mishandled dozens of court files related to domestic violence cases.

The case took years to get to trial, and Dell’Anno was represented by a number of different law firms before Gruenberg took over the case last year.

Following a trial that stretched some six weeks, a jury in March agreed with Dell’Anno and awarded damages of $3.9 million. The city first sought a new trial and then said it would appeal the decision.

Another witness in the trial, former deputy city attorney Mark Skeels, was fired last year after testifying in favor of Dell’Anno. Skeels is now suing the city for retaliation, with Gruenberg representing him in that litigation.

Meanwhile, City Attorney Mara Elliott announced last month that she was filing a malpractice lawsuit against a private lawyer her office had hired to defend the Dell’Anno case, as well as his former law firm.

That complaint alleges that Scripps Ranch attorney William Price and the Burke, Williams & Sorensen law firm mishandled the Dell’Anno defense.

Among other allegations, the city accused Price of improperly asking Skeels to testify that Dell’Anno was unstable and unprofessional — and of suggesting Skeels could avoid disclosing a past personal relationship between the two if he did.

Neither Price nor his former law firm has responded to requests for comment in that proceeding. A case management conference is scheduled for that claim in December.

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