Outside Attorneys, Plaintiffs' Lawyers Fees Cost City More than Settlements, Jury Awards

The city of San Diego is settling a pension lawsuit for $70,000 after spending more than $2 million on outside attorneys.

In a gender discrimination case, it’s granting $875,000 in legal fees to a plaintiff’s attorney to whom a jury awarded $101,000 damages.

All that money could cover the salaries of 65 new police officers, or 25 percent of a new fire station’s cost.

When it comes to spending and defending taxpayer bucks, the city received frustrating results in those cases – for which the City Council is scheduled to approve payments next week.

The costliest lawsuit involved a woman who retired after 33 years with the city.

She was single, and challenged the fact that only married retirees get a "surviving spouse  continuance benefit" – half of a retiree's pension – on grounds of illegal "marital status discrimination".

The city's legal eagles squawked for 12 years.

"They're in the 'fight' mode, not in the 'solve' mode,” says her attorney, Michael Conger. “They've hired outside counsel that has really been most interested in churning the file and making money."

Conger isn't making any money from the case; he just wants the city to stop subsidizing married retirees' post-death benefits to their spouses – a form of life insurance.

"What the city's essentially doing is they're giving married employees at retirement a Rolex, and unmarried employees a Timex,” Conger analogized in an interview Thursday. “And they're defending the case by saying 'What's the problem? They both tell time.' That's essentially what's happened for 12 years."

Conger's getting $875,000 lawyers' fees from the city in the case of a veteran female lifeguard awarded $101,000 in a gender discrimination suit over not being promoted.

Similar suits by four other women in the lifeguard’s division cost the city $350,000.

In the pension case, Conger said, the city argued the spousal benefit is necessary for recruiting new employees: "The city's done away with the pension system since 2012 for everyone but police officers. Now they have 401(k) plans. And they still can attract highly competent people."

Conger figures workers could replace the subsidy with a dollar per paycheck.

Taxpayer advocate Richard Rider has one word for the outcome of those cases: “Insane”.

Rider, chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters, recalls that a three-year case he filed years ago saved county taxpayers $3.5 billion while running up legal fees of only $500,000, split among seven attorneys.

Noting that San Diego’s outside legal fees and payments to plaintiffs and their counsel are approved by City Council members, Rider observed: "They have a tendency to genuflect to experts…the most important characteristic for a city councilman is not intelligence, it's not education -- it's skepticism. It's even being cynical. We need more of it. We seem to have a dearth of it down there right now."

By way of response, city attorney's spokesman Gerry Braun pointed out in an email to NBC 7that Conger represents labor unions that opposed pension reform measures.

“The source of Mr. Conger’s frustration is the retiree health reform that was adopted by the City Council will save taxpayers as much as $800 million. Conger keeps challenging it, and we keep winning.”

Braun said the spousal benefits pension case was settled to "avoid another decade of litigation" – and that that Conger had sought greater damages, and attorney fees.

In the lifeguard case, according to Braun, Conger requested more than $3 million.

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