CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Despite Jeff and Sherri Robinson’s request for more than $800,000 in attorneys fees in their ongoing lawsuit against the City, the trial court has ordered the City to pay only $30,000.
Additionally, the ruling says only two local attorneys out of five lawyers, including two Nashville attorneys, representing the Robinsons and their Franklin Street Corporation be compensated in connection with the one claim out of six on which they were successful.
In November 2019, a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury returned a verdict in favor of the Robinsons’ Franklin Street Corporation on a claim of inverse condemnation, the last remaining count in the lawsuit, which argued that the City had “taken” a small part of land owned by the plaintiffs when it installed a sewer line near the Robinsons’ Blackhorse Pub & Brewery at 132 Franklin St.
The jury awarded the Robinsons damages of $8,335. They had sought more than $10 million dollars in alleged damages.
Last week, Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Joseph P. Binkley Jr., who was assigned the case after local judges recused themselves, issued his ruling on the plaintiff’s attorney fee request.
“The court concludes that a reasonable fee award for attorneys Mark R. Olson and Taylor R. Dahl, which includes the time expended by both attorneys and their paralegals, is $30,000,” the judge wrote.
Mayor Joe Pitts called the judge’s order “a major legal victory for the citizens of Clarksville.”
“The City has successfully defended itself against a torrent of legal claims and maneuvers seeking millions of dollars in damages and more than $800,000 in attorneys fees,” Mayor Pitts said Monday. “To date, the city has prevailed on five of six claims brought by the Robinsons. On the single count they won, a jury awarded the plaintiffs $8,335 in damages and the judge awarded them $30,000 in lawyers fees. These results vindicate the City’s decisions to protect taxpayers’ interests in court and adhere to the principle that the City should not pay off meritless claims, and should not pay more than a reasonable amount for legally valid claims.”
In awarding attorneys fees, Judge Binkley wrote that the Robinsons’ “attorneys’ explanations of their time entries do not provide the required sufficient detail ... for the Court to determine that the stated hours were actually and reasonably spent in the prosecution of the inverse condemnation claim.”
Binkley wrote that the “most appropriate and fair method to assess the attorney fees is to determine the range that comparable attorneys would charge to try an inverse condemnation case in Clarksville.” In making this determination, the Court relied heavily on the affidavits of Clarksville attorneys Dan L. Nolan, Roger A: Maness, Mark A. Rassas and M. Joel Wallace, which the City presented in its response to the plaintiffs’ request for award of fees.
“The Court finds that a reasonable hourly rate for Mr. Olson’s attorney time is $350; a reasonable hourly rate for Ms. Dahl’s attorney time is $200, and a reasonable hourly rate for their paralegals’ time is $75. The Court also finds that a reasonable amount of time to prepare and to try this inverse condemnation case to a jury verdict is approximately 100 hours,” the order said.
The order on the attorneys’ fees represents the latest chapter in a long legal battle. In 2016, the Robinsons sued the City, alleging six separate causes of action. These claims included breach of contract, violation of civil rights, promissory estoppel and inverse condemnation. Five claims, all but the inverse condemnation count, were dismissed by the court prior to trial.
The promissory estoppel claim, a central issue in the dispute pertaining to an alleged promise by a former mayor, upon which the plaintiffs were seeking millions of dollars in damages, was dismissed outright by Judge Binkley in October 2019.
Binkley granted the City’s motion for summary judgement, agreeing with the City on its arguments that there was no written contract or enforceable promise to build an alley; that the City Council never approved anything other than the purchase of the property and the installation of utilities; and if then-Mayor Johnny Piper had made a verbal promise, it could not be enforced beyond his term of office; and that even if there were a promise made solely by a mayor, it is not binding on the City Council since all such actions must be approved by the City Council as a body as required by the City Charter; that the 2002 City Council could not bind future administrations to a prior mayoral promise; and that the Robinson’s claim was barred by the statute of limitations.
And the battle continues: The Robinsons and Franklin Street Corporation have filed a motion for new trial on the inverse condemnation claim, and they have filed an appeal in the Tennessee Court of Appeals in which they argue their five other claims should not have been dismissed prior to trial. In addition, Franklin Street Corporation has recently filed yet another lawsuit in federal court alleging the same claims as in the state court action. The City has already filed a motion to dismiss that lawsuit.