D.C. Superior Court Judge John Garrett Penn has told the city government to pass the hat among some 75,000 city property owners in order to pay a $232,800 legal bill stemming from a lawsuit that saved the property owners $9 million.
Penn's order, filed Tuesday, applies to half of the property owners in the District whose assessments were rolled back this year as the result of a suit against the city brought by lawyer Gilbert Hahn Jr.
Hahn said yesterday that the property owners will be asked to pay about $2 for every $100 saved, and that will mean a potential contribution of about $2.50 for the owner of a $40,000 home and $5.50 for the owner of a $60,000 home.
The contributions are not mandatory. The order requires the city to send each affected property owner a notice of his or her proportional share of the legal bill by early next month. The owner may send back a card saying that no donation will be made.
If the card is not returned within 15 days, however, the legal donation will be added onto the owners's tax bill next March, the order says.
Hahn said that he had asked the judge to charge the city instead of the homewoners. Penn agreed that the city had made a "bad faith" performance by improperly reassessing the homes involved, Hahn said. But the judge also said that because there were such "substantial" benefits to the property owners, they should be asked to contribute to the cost of legal fees, according to Hahn.
Hahn said he has no idea of how much money will be collected, but the city will not have to make up the difference between the amount due to Hahn and the amount donated by property owners.
Hahn said the procedure ordered by Penn was not so unusual way of collecting legal fees in a class action suit where by many people benefit from a lawsuit in which they did not active by participate.
However, D.C. Corporation Counsel John R. Risher Jr. said yesterday that he is not yet sure if the city will appeal the judge's order. Risher said some legal and practical questions are raised in the case, including the role that city government has been ordered to play in collecting money for a private individual.
"What is most unusual is to have attorney's fees awarded in a suit against a governmental entity," Risher said."It is rare for a governmental entity to be ordered to pay attorney's fees. It's even rare for the governmental entity to have to act as a collector."
the court order stems from a challenge to the city's property assessment practices brought by Hahn in 1974. At that time, Penn ordered the city to divide properties into two groups and alternate reassessing the groups from year to year.
The city, which had previously been ordered to begin annual assessments of all properties by 1977, tried to begin that practice early this year. However, Penn said on Feb. 23 that the city could not begin annual assessments until 1978.
By beginning the annual reassessments this year, Penn ruled that the city was discriminating against the owners in Group A because they would have received three reassessments since 1974 while those in Group B would have received only two.
The judge therefore ordered the city to roll back its proposed reassessments of the first group or "Group A."
Among the Group A neighborhoods are American University Park, Brookland, Burleith, Capitol Hill, Colonial Village, Columbia Heights, Eckington, Foggy Bottom, Fort Dupont Park, Foxhall, Gover Park, Hillcrest, Kalorama, Le Droit Park, Marshall Heights, Massachusetts Ave. Heights, Palisades, Petworth, Riggs Park, Tokoma Park, Trinidad, Wakefield, Wesley Heights and Woodley.