TORRANCE — Pilot-attorney Clark Garen, who claims he is broke, will find out Friday in Los Angeles federal court whether a $250,000 sanction against him will be reduced.
U.S. District Judge James M. Ideman imposed on Garen what is believed to be one of the highest sanctions ever on an attorney for filing a suit that Ideman said was designed to "harass and annoy" homeowners. He also ordered Garen to pay the attorneys' fees of the parties he sued.
After Ideman announced the sanction on April 1, Garen told the judge he had filed for bankruptcy in Houston where he owns two apartment buildings, and would be unable to pay the penalty. Ideman said Garen will face contempt of court charges if the money or a bond is not posted by May 31.
Harvey Schneider, a Woodland Hills attorney representing Garen in his appeal, refused to discuss the case.
In court records, however, Schneider argues that the sanction is excessive and that Garen was not given due process of law. He also argues that attorney fees should be minimal because the case never was heard.
The homeowners' attorney, Peter Lacombe, the American Civil Liberties Union and the cities of Torrance, Santa Monica and Lomita were awarded legal fees when Ideman dismissed Garen's suit against the homeowners and a similar one against Torrance. The two suits involved noise-reduction regulations at Torrance Municipal Airport that Garen claimed were unsafe. Garen's appeal of the dismissal of the suits will not be a part of Friday's hearing.
According to court documents, Lacombe is asking for at least $30,000, and argues that his fee is much less than it would be if each of the homeowners had retained a separate attorney. Lacombe said his fee is based on an hourly rate of $100, which is below his normal rate of between $125 and $150.
"The limited length of this litigation does not show that (Lacombe's) fees are unreasonable. Rather, the expeditious conclusion was the result of the skill and ability of (Lacombe) to work with the city and other attorneys in order to bring the case to an early conclusion," Lacombe wrote in his argument to the court.
Torrance is asking for at least $56,000 to pay for outside attorneys hired to represent the city. Ralph Nutter, the primary attorney in the case, said his usual fee of between $175 and $200 an hour was reduced to $125 an hour for his work on the case.
"We put in a lot of time, more time than we are billing," said Torrance City Atty. Stanley Remelmeyer, who added that the city also did not bill for his time on the case. "In my opinion it should be upheld."
Santa Monica, which has had its own airport noise problems in the past, and Lomita, which borders the east end of the Torrance airport, each are asking about $3,000 for filing friend of the court briefs.
The ACLU, which was concerned about constitutional rights of homeowners to voice their opinions, waived its rights to recoup any fees for filing a friend of the court brief.
Garen's suit against the homeowners, filed on behalf of the Save Our Airport From Restrictions Committee (SOAR) in December, said that homeowners who complain about airport noise should have their homes condemned. Garen cited a portion of the 1948 deed that gave the city control of the airport and 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 noise-reduction regulations by making campaign contributions, appearing at City Council meetings and working on 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 and transfer control of the airport back to the federal government.