September 27, 2005 in City

Mall owners owe former councilman $38,090

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The owners of River Park Square owe former City Councilman Steve Eugster $38,090 in attorney fees for work he did defending himself and his wife against claims filed by the mall’s owners, a judge has ruled.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Robert Austin ordered the companies that own and operate the mall to pay for more than 1,200 hours of attorney fees now that many claims surrounding the mall and its financially strapped garage were voluntarily dropped earlier this year.

In the order, filed late last week, Austin said the mall’s owners owe Eugster for work he performed as the attorney for himself and his wife that was “within reason” and the rate he was charging of $150 per hour was reasonable for a local attorney with his experience and education. He also piled up more than $6,000 in court costs.

The work was done mainly on an alternative claim the mall’s owners filed against Eugster and three other members of the Spokane City Council after legal disputes surrounding the garage started generating lawsuits. Those council members contended the mall’s owners were trying to silence their criticism with a SLAPP suit, which stands for a strategic lawsuit against public participation.

The mall’s owners contended, however, the suit was a claim for a violation of their civil rights because those city officials were making what they believed were untrue statements that were damaging the value of the mall. The mall is owned by affiliates of Cowles Publishing Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Les Weatherhead, an attorney for the mall’s owners, said the claim was an alternative to the earlier lawsuits, which asked the courts to order the council to live up to a city ordinance and loan money for some garage expenses that the parking revenues failed to cover.

In time, the courts did order the city to make good on a 1997 ordinance and loan money from its parking meter money to cover those garage expenses. Before that happened, however, the mall owners waged an unsuccessful legal fight to subpoena campaign contributors to the council members who blocked the loan. The state Legislature also tightened SLAPP statutes, citing the River Park Square case as an example of problems with the law.

Eventually, all lawsuits in state courts were put on hold while a federal securities fraud claim involving nearly everyone connected with the project worked its way through U.S. District Court. After the city and mall owners settled their disputes in the federal case late last year, they dropped their claims in state court.

But Eugster did not agree to drop his claims for fees, and eventually won a ruling that he be paid for the work he put in defending against the mall owners’ claims.

River Park Square owners had argued unsuccessfully that Eugster wasn’t entitled to fees because they had won on the other claims, Weatherhead said. The company has not yet decided whether to appeal.

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