TORRANCE — A federal judge has extended pilot-attorney Clark Garen's deadline for paying a $250,000 sanction imposed this month for filing a "fraudulent" suit against homeowners.
U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman, who imposed what is believed to be one of the highest sanctions ever on an attorney, extended the deadline from Friday to May 31.
Ideman will hear an appeal of the sanction on May 10. Ideman's dismissal of suits against homeowners and the city will not be part of the appeal.
Harvey Schneider, a Woodland Hills attorney, will represent Garen in his appeal.
Garen could not be reached for comment, and Schneider said he would not discuss the case.
Committee to Pay Fees
According to court documents, Schneider's fees will be paid by the Save Our Airport from Restrictions Committee (SOAR). It was on behalf of SOAR that Garen filed the suit in December against 20,000 homeowners and the city asking that the city be forced to condemn their homes and lift noise regulations at the city airport.
Garen has refused to identify any other members of the committee or say how large it is. Immediately after the sanction was imposed April 1, Garen said the committee did not have any money to pay it. He also said he has filed for bankruptcy in Houston where he owns rental property, and cannot pay the sanction.
Schneider argued in the court documents that the sanction imposed upon Garen denied him due process of law because it was made without allowing Garen an opportunity to respond.
Recompense for Suffering
Even if the judge disagreed with that argument, Schneider claims, the amount of the sanction is "excessive and constitutes an abuse of discretion" by the judge. He argued that sanctions are normally imposed because of conduct in the courtroom. But in Garen's case, it was simply because the court concluded that the suit was "completely fraudulent, completely meritless and filed with the sole intent to vex, harass and annoy the homeowners."
In announcing the sanction, Ideman said the $250,000 would be spread among the "aggrieved homeowners as monetary recompense for the suffering they have been put through."
Schneider argued that "so far as counsel for Garen can determine, no court has imposed anywhere near the amount of sanctions ordered in this case based upon such conduct."
Sanctions may be imposed to punish an attorney, he argued, but "it is impermissible . . . for the purposes of awarding damages for mental suffering in favor of prevailing parties."
Schneider noted six cases in which sanctions were imposed for similar reasons but ranged only from $1,100 to $10,000 to cover legal costs.
The petition asked that the sanction be modified based on Garen's financial resources and earning capacity and the financial status of the homeowners and the city.
If the court disagreed, Schneider said, Garen cannot be held in contempt of court if he is unable or fails to pay the sanction. Schneider cited court cases that concluded that civil contempt is coercive and consequently there is no justification for contempt charges against a person who lacks the ability to comply.
When Garen told Ideman he could not pay the sanction, Ideman said that he would find Garen in contempt and that "you may have to look out for the marshal."
Garen's suit against the homeowners said residents who complain about airport noise 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 its "usefulness."
The suit said homeowners "induced" city officials to impose the noise regulations by making contributions, appearing at City Council and agency meetings and working in political campaigns for council members.
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 regulations, condemn the homes of residents who complain about airport noise and transfer control of the airport back to the federal government.