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Legal Fees Totaling Almost 400% of the Victims’ Awards to be Paid by City of Oakland

As recently reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the city of Oakland will be forced to pay out over $1M following a civil rights lawsuit stemming from an egregious search and seizure in 2005. Surprisingly, it’s not the police conduct during the incident that constitutes the most disconcerting part of the story, but rather that $832,639 of the award money is going straight into the plaintiff’s attorneys’ pockets, not to the plaintiffs themselves.

The lawsuit was filed following an allegedly unprovoked police stop of a Cadillac during December 2005, at which time Oakland city police Officer Mayer unbuttoned the driver’s and passenger’s pants causing them to fall to the ground, then handcuffed and detained both men. Lacking probable cause, the search was humiliating enough for the two victims; the crowd of onlookers who stopped to watch only added to the embarrassment.

Following the trial where Officer Mayer could provide no reason for stopping the plaintiff’s vehicle in the first place, the city was ordered to pay compensatory damages in the amounts of $105,000 and $100,000 to the two victims. Additionally, Officer Mayer, who has since retired on disability, asked the city to indemnify his ordered award amounts of $25,000 and $15,000, respectively.

Regarding the legal fees, the Oakland City Council voted 7-1 on Tuesday night to pay the $832,639 in requested costs to civil rights attorneys John Burris and Michael Haddad; nearly 4 times what the victims have received. “As prevailing parties, the plaintiffs are entitled to recover their reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs,” said City Attorney Barbara Parker.

However, what constitutes “reasonable attorneys’ fees” does not seem to have been discussed by the Oakland City Council. Perhaps behind the doors of the “closed session” on Tuesday night, council members thought it better to cough up the money and put the embarrassing matter to rest for good instead of questioning whether these fees were justified. Unfortunately, it’s the tax payers of Oakland who will bear the brunt of this overwhelming legal bill.

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