It started with a fence that City Hall said was 2 feet too tall, but an ongoing dispute between a Gretna lawyer and the city is now known mostly for how high the legal bills have piled up after three years in court.
The city reportedly has spent $200,000 on the litigation thus far, and Mark Morice, the man whose fence it tore down in 2011, estimates his time and costs amount to about the same figure as the disagreement has spawned cases at the municipal, state and federal levels.
The feud continued to chug along in court Tuesday, when 24th Judicial District Judge Scott Schlegel told both sides to get together and agree upon an appropriate amount of legal fees to compensate Morice in his successful suit against the city for violating public records laws.
Schlegel issued a preliminary ruling last month saying the city broke the law when it did not respond in writing within five days to four public records requests Morice made in July and December of 2011.
The city had torn down Morice’s fence in March of that year for being 2 feet over the 6-foot limit, and Morice was seeking documents to prove that City Attorney Mark Morgan’s house had a fence that also exceeded the limit.
In issuing his final decision on the public records matter Tuesday, Schlegel noted two important caveats. He said Morice is not entitled to compensation for the time he acted as his own attorney and that the city’s failure to uphold the law was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.
Schlegel said the city’s negligence boils down to the fact that under state law, Morice was entitled to a written response within five days of his three July 6, 2011, requests, which he did not receive, and that he had the right in his Dec. 29, 2011, request to say specifically how he wanted documents furnished.
The city had told him that copies of the documents were ready to be picked up even though Morice had asked to inspect existing records.
Morgan was the individual named in the suit because he was acting as the city’s custodian of records. Schlegel said the fact that he and Morice were both interested parties in the dispute, along with being lawyers, created inconsistencies in how the entire matter was handled.
Schlegel’s ruling that Morice is not entitled to compensation for the time he put in as his own attorney could prove to be a thorny one.
Schlegel said Morice made his own decision to represent himself, and that his work should be treated as lost wages, just as if he were a plumber or a doctor appearing in court.
Although Morice had lawyers present at Tuesday’s hearing, he has largely represented himself in the case, meaning that under Schlegel’s ruling much of what he considers his costs will be out of play in the settlement talks.
Because of a gag order, neither side can discuss the issue of attorney’s fees, making it difficult to gauge how far apart they are. If the two sides can’t agree on an amount, Schlegel’s court will take up the matter in proceedings that will begin on Jan. 13. The final decision would then be open to appeal.
Schlegel made it clear Tuesday that his decision had nothing to do with the original argument about the fence, which is now waiting to be heard in a federal appeals court.
The city told Morice in late 2010 that the fence around his Willow Drive home was too tall and ordered him to take it down. He refused to do so and was found in violation in Municipal Court.
He appealed that decision to state court, but the city tore down his fence before the appeal could be heard. He won his case but said the city then refused to compensate him for his fence and other damages.
In late 2011, Morice protested by erecting a black tarp around his property and painting it with Christmas symbols, which he said amounted to a legal, temporary holiday decoration.
There have been settlement talks along the way, but no compromise has been found.
The bitter nature of the dispute was on display again Tuesday, with Morice saying after the hearing that the city’s use of taxpayer dollars to harass him — behavior he said included destroying his property and violating his family’s privacy by taking photographs through his windows — was “disgusting.”
Mayor Belinda Constant referred questions about the dispute to attorney Leonard Levenson, who could not be reached for comment.