March 22, 2017
With Sacramento County reeling from a federal court jury’s landmark $107 million judgment against it, plaintiffs’ lawyers said Wednesday the “undue influence” case should serve as a warning shot for any governmental entity that plays political favorites.
“The theme I saw in this case, that the jury saw, was a local government that got so close to these big companies they were regulating that they basically got dependent on them,” said R. Paul Yetter, the Houston-based attorney who represented plaintiffs Joseph and Yvette Hardesty. “They got in alignment so that when the companies came to the government and said, ‘We want you to target this little competitor,’ the county took sides.”
The Hardestys operated a 100-acre sand-and-gravel mine on property owned by the cattle-ranching and mining Schneider family of Sloughhouse. The Schneiders had been mining on the land with “vested rights” and without controversy since the 1800s, their lawyer said, until the county shut them down in 2010. Planning officials, acting on complaints from the nearby Teichert Construction gravel-mining company, lawyers said, found the operation in violation of zoning ordinances. They demanded the Schneiders obtain a conditional use permit, and upped the amount of the bond the family had to post to reclaim the land from less than $200,000 to $8.8 million.
But if county attorneys thought they played a strong hand with the zoning violations they threw at the Schneiders, the attorney for the family thought he had a stronger to one punch back with: the due process protections of the Fifth and 14th Amendments.
“The plaintiffs never could get a fair hearing under local laws administered by county officials,” said Glenn W. Peterson, the Roseville lawyer who represented the Schneiders. “But ultimately, they were protected by the highest laws in the land, and the federal system, and that’s the most significant thing about this case.”
Gregory P. O’Dea, the private attorney retained to defend the county as well as former county Supervisor Roger Dickinson and two other county officials who were named as defendants, said after the verdict Tuesday that he did not think the jury’s findings were supported by the evidence and that he plans to contest the awards in post-trial motions.
“It is our sincere belief that (the verdict) should not stand,” O’Dea said.
The award is believed to be the largest ever against the county, although officials could not confirm that Wednesday. Sacramento County Counsel Robyn Drivon said she needs to meet with the Board of Supervisors “to assess and review” the case on how the county would pay it off if the award stands and whether any of the money would come out of the general fund.
Drivon said the county is self-insured to $2 million “and then has an excess coverage rate over that.”
“This may exceed that,” Drivon said. “But part of what’s under review is what those limits are and what those funds would consist of. We’re allowed to ask for 10 years of payments. That’s all of what’s under consideration.”
In their trial briefs, the plaintiffs charged that county officials took a heavy-handed approach toward the Hardestys and the Schneiders at the behest of Teichert, the company that mines aggregate near the Schneider land in eastern Sacramento County.
The Hardestys and Schneiders said Teichert exerted inordinate political influence with county officials – including Dickinson, the late former state Sen. Dave Cox and former Congressman Dan Lungren – in an effort to take out a business competitor.
Peterson said his clients did not sue Teichert for a simple reason: the company did not violate anybody’s due process rights. “In my opinion, it was very predatory, what Teichert did, but this case was about a failure of government and a corruption within the government, not elsewhere,” he said.
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