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Attorneys Seek $15.4-Million Fee From County : Settlement: New request comes on top of $55.6-million court judgment against taxpayers over land for jail site.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lawyers for developer Roque de la Fuente II, who won a $55.6-million judgment against the county in late September over 525 acres the county seized to built the East Mesa jail, now are seeking $15.4 million more in attorney’s fees, court documents reveal.

De la Fuente had four sets of lawyers on the case. One firm, the San Diego firm of Thorsnes, Bartalotta, McGuire & Padilla, whose attorneys actually tried the case before a jury, has asked for $12.6 million of the $15.4 request, the documents indicate.

The Thorsnes firm worked on the case from last June through the September trial. The three other sets of lawyers have asked for various amounts of the remaining $2.8 million, according to documents filed Nov. 30 with the San Diego Superior Court.

The lawyers also asked for $539,938.50 in costs and expert fees, according to the documents.

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With interest on the $55.6 million accumulating daily, as it has been since the county seized the land in 1987, De la Fuente and his attorneys are believed to be asking for a total approaching $80 million from the financially strapped county, supervisors said.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Jeffrey T. Miller has set a Dec. 17 hearing to consider the fee request. Miller also is scheduled to take up at that hearing the county’s request for a new trial.

Negotiations for a settlement in the case also are under discussion, said supervisors and lawyers in the case. No details of the talks have been disclosed.

But, said Supervisor George Bailey, “I guarantee you we haven’t got $80 million.”

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Michael Thorsnes, one of De la Fuente’s attorneys, said Thursday that the developer is willing to bargain.

De la Fuente “has communicated to the county’s representatives his willingness to sit down and address a resolution of this matter on any basis that makes sense, and in virtually any format that makes sense to the county,” Thorsnes said. “We’re ready, willing and able to continue that process.”

Thorsnes also said the request for legal fees was common in cases in which a government agency seizes land under its eminent domain power. And, he added, the request was reasonable, given what he called the county’s “low-ball, unrealistic” settlement offers before trial and hardball tactics at the trial.

During the trial, the county claimed that the land would be best used for residential housing. The jury, however, bought De la Fuente’s contention that it was a remarkable plot ideally suited for a jail, returning the $55.6 million verdict on Sept. 28.

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The East Mesa site is immediately east of a state prison--built on land that had also been owned by the De la Fuente family. The family owns real estate, car dealerships and a bank.

Beginning in 1985, the county and De la Fuente began negotiations for the family to sell the site. Unable to reach agreement, the county condemned the parcel on Sept. 16, 1987, through its eminent domain powers.

The jury had to decide the “highest and best” use of the land--defined as one that produces the most economic benefit--and, then, the value of the land for that use. It decided the site was best suited for a jail and put the fair market value at $55.6 million.

In light of the $55.6 million judgment, $15.4 million in legal fees--or 27% of the total--should not be considered excessive, De la Fuente’s lawyers said in court filings.

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It’s even more reasonable, they said, in view of the county’s $7.5 million final offer to settle the case.

De la Fuente wanted $10.24 million to settle the case before the trial. But neither side budged.

“The county had many opportunities to settle this case on a variety of bases,” Thorsnes said. “They came in with, and maintained, a low-ball, unrealistic offer” that was a “mere fraction of the true value of the property.”

According to court filings, the Thorsnes firm wants Miller to approve the contingency arrangement it entered into with De la Fuente on June 9, 1990.

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As of Nov. 12, the firm had billed--at $350 an hour--$451,705 on the case, the document said. On top of that, it said, the agreement provided that the firm would get 20% of the amount between $10 million and $20 million, 25% of the amount between $20 million and $30 million and 30% of the amount over $30 million--or $12,198,444.

Adding $12,198,444 to $451,705 yields $12,650,149--the amount the Thorsnes firm wants approved.

At $12,650,149, assuming the Thorsnes firm worked on the case every day from June 9 through the verdict on Sept. 28, or 111 days, it earned $113,966 per day.

Ronald L. Endeman, a private lawyer who was the county’s lead attorney on the case, declined to comment about the fee request.

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At the Dec. 17 hearing, Miller is also scheduled to take up the county’s unusual basis for requesting a new trial.

In court filings, the county alleges that De la Fuente’s lawyers used a jury consultant who allegedly had access to a county computer with jury pool information. That gave De la Fuente an unfair advantage, the county said.

In a document filed Thursday, however, De la Fuente’s attorneys provided a sworn statement from an official at the jury commissioner’s office who said no demographic information exists on any jury pool computer.

The county also claimed simply that the $55.6-million judgment was excessive. “A value of $55.6 million for a vacant rural parcel without sewer and with access by means of a dirt easement is ludicrous,” the county said.

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