Honolulu taxpayers could be on the hook for nearly $1 million in legal fees to settle a landmark lawsuit over how the city has been conducting homeless sweeps.

It’s an expense that the city could have mostly avoided — had it decided to resolve the dispute last year.

The city had a chance to head off the legal fight altogether for about $28,000, with terms far more favorable to the city than what it ultimately settled for.

Instead, in August, the Honolulu City Council agreed to pay $48,500 in damages under a proposed settlement, whose final resolution is expected in late October.

The city has also been relying on a private law firm to defend it in the federal class-action lawsuit — at a cost, so far, of $150,000.

And now the plaintiffs’ attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and the law firm of Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing are asking the court for the recovery of more than $600,000 in their fees and out-of-pocket costs.

A federal class-action lawsuit was filed last week against the city over homeless sweeps.
Tabatha Martin, left, was among 15 original plaintiffs who filed a federal class-action lawsuit in September 2015 to challenge how the city was conducting homeless sweeps. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A group of 15 people — who are or have been homeless — filed a lawsuit in September, alleging that the city was illegally cracking down on the homeless by removing their belongings and immediately destroying them as part of enforcing the stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances.

The attorneys say the lawsuit has since dragged on, thanks to a series of unwarranted actions by the city.

The court initially declined to issue a temporary restraining order against the sweeps, relying heavily on the city’s insistence that its maintenance crew removes and immediately destroys only items that were “obviously trash.”

But, after weeks of an expensive discovery process, the attorneys were able to demonstrate to the court that the city’s testimony was “blatantly inaccurate.”

In January, both sides signed off on a court-sanctioned agreement that prevents the city from throwing out any personal items during sweeps. Four months later, after lengthy mediation sessions, the parties agreed to settle the lawsuit out of court.

Late last month, U.S. District Court Judge Helen Gillmor approved the preliminary terms of the settlement, including a provision that allows the attorneys to petition to recover their fees and reimbursement of out-of-pocket costs.

In motions filed Friday, the attorneys asked for about $600,000 in fees — $219,000 for the ACLU of Hawaii and $382,000 for Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing — as well as two separate requests for a total of $21,500 in reimbursement of out-of-pocket costs.

The attorneys say the amount reflects a 20 percent voluntary discount in fees.

Still, in a statement to Civil Beat, Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong said the city will oppose the two law firms’ request.

“The city believes the amounts requested are not reasonable,” Leong said.

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