EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
BURLINGTON – Taxpayers are shelling out hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars just so a lawyer can hide how much is being spent by the Regional District 10 school system to defend a federal civil rights lawsuit.
The lawyer, Christine Chinni of Chinni & Meuser in Avon, has already billed the school system more than $50,000 through June, according to records provided today by the school superintendent.
Those records date back to a month and a half before the suit was filed. Included in those charges are a few hundred dollars for talking with reporters, a couple hundred dollars for writing a letter to another lawyer and at least $580 for photocopying, with no citation for per-page fees. Chinni’s billing rate is $220 per hour. It is unclear if Chinni is on a yearly retainer.
Significantly, no documents related to the civil rights suit, Doninger V. Niehoff, Schwartz, et al, have been produced by the school district following Freedom of Information requests and complaints going back to Aug. 1. The requests followed the engagement of a high-powered Hartford firm to defend the case.
Highly-regarded law firms tend to charge about double Chinni’s rates and demand retainers in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000 for comparable cases in federal court. Taxpayers can look forward to shelling out a lot more money in the coming months.
School Superintendent Paula Schwartz released some documents today, following a Freedom of Information request filed Aug. 1. The request sought, among other items,
“any and all billing records related to legal work that has been farmed out to the firm Howd & Ludorf and / or your regular counsel regarding alleged civil rights violations by you and your administration against students including Avery Doninger.
“These records,” the request continued, “include but are not limited to: retainer agreement, indemnification clause, retainer check and other checks and invoices; also, meeting minutes, memorandums, phone logs and e-mails regarding the administration’s handling of these matters. In addition, this request covers copies of the write-in votes submitted for Ms. Doninger and any and all related records including memos and e-mails. Memos and documents include but are not limited to discussions about the seizure of free speech t-shirts by your staff.
“To amplify, this request covers any and all public records about this matter in your possession or control, regardless of where they are stored, whether in your office and office computer, home and home computer, etc.”
A number of documents sought via requests Aug. 1 and Aug. 2 and in complaints Aug. 3 and Aug. 6 remain outstanding. Additionally, it is unclear whether the documents released today were simply redacted or reconstructed by Chinni. In the requests and complaints, Schwartz was asked to produce all attorney records relevant to the requests for the FOI Commission—so an impartial party could ensure that any redactions were legal and proper.
Pending complaints before the state Freedom of Information Commission are docketed as FIC2007-418 and FIC2007-421. Those complaints seek sanctions including $1,000 fines.
Chinni and lawyers for Howd & Ludorf filed appearances and a motion in the civil rights case—before documents related to the case were sought in the FOI requests and complaints. Yet, none of those documents have been produced by Schwartz.
Lawyers are required by the Rules of Professional Conduct (1.5B) to have retainer agreements. Clients – in this case the taxpayers of Burlington, Harwinton and all of Connecticut – have the right to know how fees are split among law firms when public money is expended or allocated.
Yet, Chinni, responding for Schwartz, wrote on Aug. 3:
“the Board does not possess any “billing records related to legal work that has been farmed out to the firm Howd &Ludorf and / or [this firm] regarding alleged civil rights violations by [Mrs. Schwartz] and [her] administration against students including Avery Doninger.” Neither this firm nor Howd & Ludorf has sent Region 10 any billing regarding the Doninger matter, has entered into a retainer agreement with Region 10 concerning that matter in particular or any other matter concerning student civil rights in particular, or has received an indemnity clause or retainer check regarding that matter or any other alleged violation of any student’s civil rights. You did not, as you allege in your more recent documentation, request copies of court documents. Moreover, your request was made to Region 10, and I responded on their behalf. Chinni &Meuser LLC is not a public agency, and is not covered by the Freedom of Information Act. (the “Act.”) Accordingly, any documents in our firm’s possession, or that of Howd &Ludorf, that are not in possession of Region 10, are not subject to provisions of the Act.”
No basis in law is cited for this opinion. Generally, lawyers are aware that if they take public money, they are accountable to the public.
This was the continuation of a cat and mouse game also manifested by Chinni’s initial refusal to provide the suppressed write-in ballots that propelled Doninger to a victory in her banned run for secretary of the Class of 2008 at Lewis Mills High School.
Doninger’s lawsuit against principal Karissa Niehoff and superintendent Paula Schwartz—commonly known as The Douche Bag[s] Case—is scheduled for several days of hearings in U.S. District Court in New Haven next week.
Doninger’s lawyer, Jon Schoenhorn of Hartford, claims she was banned from office as punishment for constitutionally-protected activity, including trying to involve the community in securing a venue for a concert. Doninger apologized to school officials for characterizing them—in her personal, on-line blog at home—as female hygiene products.
Regarding the ballots, Chinni had responded:
“the Board does not poses [sic] any “copies of the write-in votes for Ms. Doninger” or memos and emails regarding such write-in votes” There are also no documents or memos concerning the “seizure of free speech t-shirts.” Accordingly, the board will not be providing any documents in response to these requests.”
Chinni’s ongoing issues with candor related to the FOI tribunal and non-members of the Bar suggest serious violations of Rules of Professional Conduct (8.4, 8.5, 4.1, 4.3).
The Aug. 2 request referenced the work of Chinni and attorneys Thomas Gerarde and Katherine Rule of Howd & Ludorf on behalf of the Regional District 10 school system:
“Let’s suppose for a moment, that attorneys Chinni, Gerarde and Rule are all very kind to pets and nice to their friends. That being said, they probably do not work for free or for love. They probably do not work without some kind of agreement or memo of understanding.
“When a public agency pays a law firm, or agrees to pay a law firm,” the Aug. 2 request continued, “documents are involved. These are public records. These include but are not limited to purchase orders, checks, retainer agreements, indemnification clauses, etc. Maybe these are unusual lawyers who spend little time preparing motions or getting ready to meet with a federal judge. Maybe they do it on good faith, a wink and a nod, or a handshake.”
Other documents sought – but not produced – in the FOI requests and complaints include:
* Records of who was on the ballot, who was taken off the ballot, who was solicited to run by the administration and who “won” various elections without factoring in the write-in votes.
* E-mails, minutes, memos, phone logs, etc., related to the administration’s handling of the student election.