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Attorneys Get $10 Million in Charity Fight

September 07, 1986|MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Over the protests of some within their own ranks, attorneys who waged a recent court battle over a large Marin County charity have been awarded $10.1 million in fees from the charity's trust fund.

The fees, approved Friday by Superior Court Judge Homer Thompson, equal the entire value of the contested Buck Trust when it was established in 1975. The trust, meant for the needy of Marin, has since grown to $435 million.

Since Marin is one of the nation's wealthiest areas, the foundation tending the trust, the San Francisco Foundation, sought to break the Marin-only clause and let the trust benefit poor people all over the San Francisco Bay Area.

That effort was dropped last month, and a new foundation is being formed to administer the charity.

With the whole legal fight made in vain, some of the lawyers criticized the amount spent on legal fees, calling it a "crime" and a "disgrace." One attorney suggested that some or all of the fees be donated to the needy.

"I'm outraged," said Robert Gnaizda, an attorney for Public Advocates Inc., a public-interest law firm that represented charities who challenged the trust. "You had an army of 110 lawyers plundering an unguarded hope chest that was supposed to be for the poor. It's a judicial and legal disgrace."

He suggested that the fees be donated to the needy but was unsure whether his firm would appeal the awards. The trust is also obligated to pay foundation lawyers for defending their own fees, he said.

Gnaizda's firm was not reimbursed for its role in the lawsuit, but another critic of the fees in the case, Ronald Malone, lamented the settlement even though his firm is to receive $3.9 million for having opposed any changes in the trust.

'It Is a Crime'

"It is a crime that the trust had to pay these attorney fees," he said. "But that was not caused by us. The trust was attacked by Public Advocates and the San Francisco Foundation . . . and we had to defend it.

"If Public Advocates and the foundation had not tried to recast the trust in a way to suit their political casts, there would have been no need for any fees."

Steven Bomse, who represented the San Francisco Foundation, said the fuss over attorneys' fees, which ranged up to $235 an hour, is unfair because they were only following their clients' instructions in pursuing the case. "This is not a lawyers' fight," he said.

He added that his firm charged its normal rates, saying the high total fees are due to the length and complexity of the case, which began in April, 1984, generated 14,000 pages of testimony and 500,000 pages of exhibits, consumed 100 days in court and has been described as the "Super Bowl of Probate."

Bomse said his firm--Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe--will receive $3.4 million in fees and expense reimbursements, although other lawyers in the case put the firm's fees at closer to $3.9 million.

Criticism Brushed Aside

Carol Piasente, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Foundation, also brushed aside criticism of the fees awarded in the case.

"It is a great deal of money," she acknowledged, "but you need to look at it in terms of what was at stake--a trust of $435 million. . . . The (state) attorney general audited these fees and found nothing inappropriate in them."

In any case, Bomse blasted Gnaizda's suggestion that the money be given to charity.

"I find that suggestion offensive," he said. "It's offensive in that, as Mr. Gnaizda well knows, this firm does in excess of $1 million a year in charitable work, for which it is not reimbursed."

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