Court denies STPUD motion
A $574 land assessment bill turned into a legal battle between a property owner and South Tahoe Public Utility District for $61,703 in accrued attorney fees.
El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Suzanne Kingsbury denied a STPUD motion earlier this month that sought reimbursement for attorney fees to settle a dispute on who owed the $574.
Dennis Cocking, spokesman for STPUD, said the denial does not mean its customers have to pay the $61,703 through increased rates.
In 1990, Fallen Leaf homeowners lent $810,000 in bond money to STPUD for sewage improvements. The money was to be paid back by assessments levied against Fallen Leaf properties. In the contract was the assurance that homeowners delinquent with assessment fees would be taken to court.
Enter John and Christine Mumford. The couple purchased a Fallen Leaf lot next to their home. The title was recorded in El Dorado County in September 2000.
By April 2001, $574 in assessments were due.
A mix-up at the county assessor’s office didn’t transfer the sellers’ names to the Mumfords. The mistake was discovered in August 2001 by STPUD, which stopped sending payment notices to the sellers and began sending them to the Mumfords.
The Mumfords didn’t pay. In February 2002, STPUD filed a lawsuit.
According to the court’s answer, the “plaintiff’s attorneys spoke to (John) Mumford on March 13, 2002, advising him that as of (Feb. 4, 2002) the total sum due was $9,975. (John) Mumford advised counsel that he considered this to be ‘a joke,’ called counsel an ‘ambulance chaser’ and hung up. The court finds Mr. Mumford’s reaction to be entirely understandable and believes this would be the reaction of any ratepayer who was advised that he owed almost $10,000 on a $574 assessment.”
After the Mumfords paid the fee 17 months after it was due, more court hearings to settle the attorney fees bulked the amount to more than $60,000.
“As a matter of principle (John Mumford) wanted to see if he could do something about it,” attorney Kenji Iida said. “It seemed an awful amount of money.”
Cocking said he and the rest of STPUD were surprised by the ruling. Other assessment disputes, although not as high as the Mumford matter, have gone to court with the fees eventually being paid.
The district expects the $810,000 in bond money to be paid off in 2004 since 82 percent of the amount has already been covered.
Cocking called the case a “comedy of errors I don’t think on our part” and described the ruling “harsh.”
Currently the Mumfords are in litigation with Old Republic Title Company over their attorney fees. On Monday, a February trial date was scheduled.
Iida wouldn’t give a specific amount, but said the number was close to the $60,000 range.
“As a financial matter, he might at best come out even but he didn’t want to pay the district anything because he was wronged,” Iida said.
Asked about the court ruling, Iida said law allows a court to determine attorney fees as unreasonable. If that determination is made, the court can punish the plaintiff by reducing the owed fees to zero, he added.
— E-mail William Ferchland at firstname.lastname@example.org