City's legal costs top $60,000 in Criste case

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— The city of Steamboat Springs has spent more than $60,000 in legal fees and related costs in its dispute with local chiropractor David Criste. And there's a significant chance the bill will go much higher.
District Court Judge Richard Doucette found in favor of Criste and against the city May 31, at the conclusion of a two-day civil trial. The ruling meant the city must issue Criste a certificate of occupancy for his building addition at 434 Oak St. The city had hoped the court would make Criste alter the building addition. The city wanted to make the building conform to a development permit it issued for the project in 1993. In practical terms, that would have meant Criste would have had to tear down the addition.
No monetary damages were sought in last month's trial, nor were any awarded. But that part could come later.
Criste has another lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Denver. That suit alleges that Criste's civil rights were abridged when the city prevented him from completing his construction project, and seeks unspecified damages.
City Council President Pro Tem Kathy Connell said she would prefer that the city never end up in court.
"We would like to not ever have high legal bills," Connell said. "The city, the city staff and City Council try their best to do everything possible to not have high bills. But we have a human population and humans make decisions, so we have to litigate. And litigation is something we really don't want to be there."
Connell believes society in general should move toward settling legal disputes through arbitration and mediation. There were attempts to come to a mediated settlement of the litigation between the city and Criste last fall, but they did not result in a settlement.
"There's a lot of work left ahead," City Attorney Tony Lettunich said.
The bulk of the $60,000 spent by the city thus far can be attributed to bills from Lettunich. He informed Steamboat Today in writing this week that he has billed the city $50,839.67 in connection with the City/Criste litigation going back to 1998.
In addition to legal fees submitted by Lettunich, the city paid a $10,000 deductible on its insurance policy with the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency. CIRSA joined in the city's litigation with Criste and retained the Denver legal firm of Hall & Evans to represent its interests in the case. Beyond the $10,000, the city is not responsible for fees submitted by attorneys from Hall & Evans who are working on the case.
Lettunich is not an employee of the city; he bills the city for the work it asks him to undertake at a rate of $130 an hour.
"I serve at the will of the council," Lettunich said. "It's not a contract."
Lettunich separated his legal fees into three categories in a memo to Steamboat Today.
The first category, totaling $10,044, included fees dating from the beginning of the work through July 1999. The work included pleadings, initial conferences, researching and briefing the city's motion to dismiss a suit by Criste, Lettunich wrote. Those fees also covered the preliminary discovery phase, including interviewing of witnesses and reviewing and cataloging documents, he said.
The second fee category covers an overlapping time period from August 1998 through December 1998, when Lettunich said he billed the city $20,930.
"This included major discovery phase with preparation and deposition of witnesses and interviews of additional witnesses," Lettunich said. This set of fees also included a presentation to the Judicial Arbiter Group for court-ordered mediation.
The mediation proved unsuccessful. The city offered to grant Criste a certificate of occupancy. Criste and his attorney, Edward Serr, countered with a request for a cash settlement, which was in turn declined by the city.
Finally, Lettunich billed $19,865 between January and May 2000 as he prepared for trial of the case that wound up at the end of May.
Lettunich said he anticipates that he will continue working with attorneys from Hall & Evans on the federal suit, but declined to estimate what that work might cost.
"We're obligated to work with our insurance company," Lettunich said. "Certainly, we want to, but we're also obligated to."
The $60,839 the city has spent on legal fees associated with the city/Criste litigation thus far does not include a substantial amount of time spent on the case by city staff attorney Dan Foote.
Contacted this week, Foote said his employment with the city does not require him to keep detailed time logs for billing purposes, as an attorney in private practice would do. After consulting with Lettunich, Foote declined to spend the hours he said it would take to reconstruct the time he's spent on the city/Criste litigation, in time for this article. Steamboat Today has made a formal request to the city for information pertaining to the amount of Foote's time spent on the matter.
Also not accounted for in the $60,839 are expenses incurred to bring out-of-town witnesses to Steamboat to testify in the trial. Former city planner Karl Gabrielson came from Trinidad and former city manager Van James came from Flower Mound, Texas, near Dallas, to testify as witnesses for the city. Expense vouchers for their travel have not been submitted to the city finance department.

To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210, or e-mail tomross@amigo.net

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