A $250,000 sanction was imposed by a federal judge Monday on a pilot-attorney who filed a "fraudulent and unmeritorious" lawsuit asking that the City of Torrance be forced to condemn the houses of 20,000 homeowners living near the city's municipal airport.
U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman dismissed the suit on noise reduction regulations at Torrance Municipal Airport, saying it was intended to "vex and harass" the homeowners.
In imposing the sanction, which attorneys in the courtroom said was among the highest ever levied against a lawyer, Ideman said the suit was "particularly cruel and (that) counsel threatened and intimidated homeowners into a real fear of losing their homes."
Ideman was referring to a letter that was sent to homeowners, along with the suit, in which attorney Clark Garen said, "I have no choice but to try to take your house away from you so I can enjoy my airplane."
Ideman said he wanted the sanction to be "meaningful" and ordered Garen to post the money with the court by April 19. Garen, who practices in Torrance, told Ideman that he has filed for bankrupcty in Houston, where he owns rental property, and is unable to pay the money or post a bond.
Ideman said Garen would face contempt of court charges if the money were not posted.
"Then I will present myself for contempt," said Garen, who added that he will appeal the decision.
The suit against the homeowners, which was filed by Garen on behalf of the Save Our Airport From Restriction Committee, a loosely organized group of pilots, was originally filed in December in Los Angeles Superior Court. However, attorneys for the residents argued that the case should be heard in federal court, because Garen had filed a similiar suit against Torrance in U.S. District Court.
The suit against the homeowners said residents who complain that the airport is too noisy should have their homes condemned, because the 1948 deed that gave the city control of the airport prohibits the city from allowing land near the airport to be developed in a manner that would limit the "usefulness" of the airport. The airport was used by the federal government during World War II, before the city took control.
The suit said homeowners "induced" city officials to impose the airport noise regulations by making campaign contributions, appearing at City Council and administrative agency meetings, personally contacting the mayor and council members and working in political campaigns.
The suit against the city claimed that the city violated the "usefulness" portion of the deed and asked the court to force the city to rescind all noise reduction regulations at the airport, condemn the homes of residents who complained that the airport is too noisy and transfer control of the airport back to the federal government.
Ideman said he was prepared to send the case back to Superior Court, but Ralph Nutter, a retired Superior Court judge representing the city, persuaded Ideman that the matter belonged in federal court, because the essence of both suits were federal aircraft safety regulations and the constitutional rights of residents to petition the City Council to implement the noise regulations at the airport.
Ideman agreed federal issues were involved, and then quickly dismissed both suits.