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Who pays for litigation?

Right Here, Right Now

Posted: April 13, 2008 11:02 p.m.
Updated: June 15, 2008 5:03 a.m.
 
Rarely will you ever hear an attorney complain about the increasing number of frivolous lawsuits being filed by plaintiffs across this state. After all, as a defense attorney, these lawsuits help to pay my mortgage, my car payments and eventually will finance college for my three girls and hopefully a comfortable retirement.
Every so often, though, the taxpayer in me takes offense to the baseless claims of the very loud minority, who claim to be "doing the right thing for society."

Lynne Plambeck is a part of this vociferous minority. For those not "in the know," Ms. Plambeck has been a board member of the Newhall County Water District since 1993. For nearly 15 years, she has used her board position to control where, when and how residential and commercial development takes place in and around this valley.

She has been a plaintiff in at least three lawsuits to limit growth, control water distribution or change how water is supplied to valley residents. She is a vocal opponent to those members of the City Council looking to manage the growth of this valley in a prudent and reasonable fashion.

Ordained by many as a "zero-growth strategist," Plambeck has faced strong opposition from conservative and pro-business groups from around the state. It was Plambeck's recent column in The Signal heralding the "inconsistencies" of our City Council (City Should Oppose Gate-King Project, March 27, 2008) that prompted me to point out that Ms. Plambeck should not cast the first stone.

In April 2001, Plambeck became the lead plaintiff in a 240-page lawsuit filed against a number of organizations, including the Castaic Lake Water Agency and the not-for-profit Santa Clarita Water Company.

Although not in direct competition with Newhall County Water District due to regional boundaries, these two organizations are in the same business as Plambeck's district board - namely, supplying water to Planning Department-approved projects for valley residents.

In her suit, Ms. Plambeck, purportedly acting on behalf of "property owners, taxpayers and residents of the 'Territory' of ... Castaic Lake Water Agency," tried to block the agency's acquisition of Santa Clarita Water by alleging the merger violated a number of laws governing non-profit corporations. According to an article in the Mighty Signal (Court Sides with CLWA, Sept. 18, 2007), Plambeck claimed she was "trying to protect the public health as well as rate-payers' pocketbooks by bringing this complaint."

After one day of trial, the court entered a 23-page written judgment in favor of all the defendants. The court determined that the transfer of Santa Clarita Water to CLWA was valid and Ms. Plambeck lacked the right-to-sue for the claims she filed.

However, instead of accepting the trial court's ruling, Ms. Plambeck appealed the judgment to the Court of Appeals. The appeal took nearly two years to complete, but on Sept. 6, 2007, the Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the trial court judgment in favor of the defendants. Plambeck lost again.

Without boring readers with legalese, the original litigation took over four years, was very contentious and very, very expensive. The appeal took another two years and it, too, was extraordinarily expensive.
Which leads me to my burning question: Who paid for this litigation?

Did Lynne Plambeck personally fund this entire lawsuit? Unlikely. Did the state of California pay for this? Absolutely not. Did the CLWA pick up the tab for its defense, without passing along those costs in our water rates? Probably not. (It should be noted the court ordered Plambeck and the other plaintiffs to pay for the defendants' costs of suit; however, this does not include the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees likely incurred by CLWA in defense of the lawsuit and subsequent appeal, not to mention CLWA staff time).

So who ended up paying for both the prosecution and defense of this frivolous suit? The most likely answer is that we did. The same "property owners, taxpayers and residents of the 'Territory' of ...
Castaic Lake Water Agency," for whom Plambeck was supposedly speaking, footed the bill. The protection of our pocketbooks promised by Plambeck backfired, and now we are paying for her mistakes.

The next time Ms. Plambeck chooses to act on my behalf, she should give me a call first. I'm usually not one to give free legal advice, but I'll make an exception and will tell her whether her claims are frivolous before she files suit, and whether she should save her - oh, wait, I'm sorry, my money before she decides to look out for this rate-payer's best interests.

Brian Koegle is a resident of Santa Clarita. The opinions he expresses are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the position of his employer or of The Signal.

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