Losing side’s lawyer offers to pay fees

WINTER HAVEN – Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | In an unusual move, an attorney who sued to block a city annexation conceded that the case was without merit and offered to pay all legal costs incurred by the other party.

Christopher Desrochers — the lawyer representing two people who tried to overturn the annexation, who in turn are being sued by developer Al Cassidy for legal fees — agreed to pay 100 percent of the costs, although he is only required by state law to pay half.

Desrochers agreed to pay the fees if he loses the lawsuit brought by Cassidy. According to Cassidy’s attorney, Desrochers finally decided to throw in the towel.

“I have never seen anything like this in my 20 years of practicing law; it is that unusual,” Lance Holden with Sharit, Bunn & Chilton PA said Monday. “It’s an odd situation, but one that is a huge endorsement for the city.”

Holden said he does not know how much legal cost Cassidy has incurred, but the amount is in the thousands, if not tens of thousands. He charges $225 per hour.

Desrochers did not return a reporter’s phone calls Monday.

Cassidy decided to sue Desrochers’ clients, Claudia Richburg and Ledger Development Associates Inc. owner Keith Ledger, after the two filed a suit claiming the city’s annexation violated state law. Cassidy, who owns property near and within the 395 acres along State Road 540 annexed by the city this past summer, was allowed to intervene on Winter Haven’s behalf.

Richburg and Ledger’s lawsuit against the city was dismissed with prejudice in October. Cassidy then decided to sue Richburg and Ledger for fees he incurred helping defend the city’s annexation.

According to Holden, Richburg and Ledger never had legal standing to sue, and Desrochers knew it.

“I wrote to the attorney for the petitioners in September and showed him cases that demonstrated that without a doubt they had no case, that it was frivolous,” Holden said. “He still didn’t withdraw.”

Winter Haven resident Robert Sarno, who is known in the community for opposing the city’s annexation practices, said the case against Winter Haven does have merit and he doesn’t understand why Desrochers conceded.

“He must have his head in the sand,” Sarno said. “I think they had an excellent case, with a tremendous amount of merit.”

Sarno, who said he was not involved with the Richburg and Ledger case, but sympathetic to it, said the city did violate state law.

“If (the city) would have followed the law, they would not have been able to annex,” he said. “It’s extortion is what it is.”

In the original suit, Richburg said she never consented to the annexation, and Ledger said he was misled into signing a voluntary annexation agreement, adding that the city threatened to withhold water and sewer service unless he signed.

Judge Charles B. Curry threw the case out because neither could show how they would suffer material injury because of the annexation. Curry even denied their motion for a rehearing.

Larry Arnold, assistant city manager, said the city of Winter Haven will probably not attempt to collect any legal fees incurred in the annexation suit, especially since former city attorney Robert Antonello advised the city not to pursue that action.

“We may be precluded from suing for attorney fees because we want to move forward and legal fees are secondary for us,” he said.