Think Legal, Act Local: How One Attorney Gave Back to the Community In Which He Lives and Works

by JD Supra Perspectives

I was taught and believe that my law license is a privilege and that with that privilege comes a responsibility to give back to the community. As long as my firm is in practice we will always have one or two pro bono cases active...

We spoke recently with attorney Jeffrey Lewis of Broedlow Lewis to learn more about his firm's pro bono work on a hot-button case focusing on land use restrictions and the preservation of open space. Broedlow Lewis represents more than 100 southern California homeowners who challenged their city's sale of a public park to a private party for private use.

Jeff described the firm's extensive pro bono commitment to the case; a recent turning point in the case; and the firm's philosophy toward pro bono work:

Q: Can you give some background to the Palos Verdes Estates case and describe the nature of the dispute and how it began?

Palos Verdes Estates (“PVE”) is a semi-rural community in Southern California. When the city was founded in the 1920s, 850 acres, or one third of the total city, was set aside as open space parkland. The parkland had deed restrictions requiring that the land be used as public parklands forever.

In 2012, PVE entered into a multi-party transaction whereby one resident of PVE paid $1.5 million and received 1.7 acres of parkland. The transaction was not well publicized and was approved without much effort to notify residents. When residents complained about the sale violating the deed restrictions, their complaints went unheeded. In May 2013, the residents formed a group, Citizens for Enforcement of Parkland Covenants (“CEPC”) to challenge the legality of the transaction in court.

Q: How did the firm's involvement with the case come about? What is the process for vetting and approving pro bono cases at your Broedlow Lewis?

I live in the Palos Verdes Peninsula and my firm’s office is here. Many people are proud of our local land conservancy and our local leaders’ commitment to open space. When I found out about this transaction, I was concerned that all other parkland in the Palos Verdes Peninsula could be sold. I met with the local residents, formed their association and filed the papers necessary to challenge the transaction.

Many people are proud of our local land conservancy and our local leaders’ commitment to open space...

My firm accepts two or three cases pro bono per year in the areas of first amendment and land use. We meet with proposed clients, investigate their claims and decide as a firm whether the firm can accomplish the result the clients want.

Q: Where does the case stand now?

In May 2015, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of CEPC. It is very unusual for a plaintiff to file a motion for summary judgment and even rarer for a court to grant one granting all relief pled in a complaint. Judgment was entered in September and one of the three defendants have appealed. The other two defendants are deciding whether to appeal or accept the court’s ruling.  

It is very unusual for a plaintiff to file a motion for summary judgment and even rarer for a court to grant one granting all relief pled in a complaint...

Q: What is the significance of this case, whether for people locally or for other disputes elsewhere involving open space, public land, private property, development, government actions, transparency, etc.?

There is a long line of California cases holding that a municipality need not accept a gift of real property with land use restrictions for public purposes. Those same cases hold that if a city chooses to accept such a grant, the city holds those lands in trust for the public. The city may not simply disregard the land use restrictions that come along with that gift. This case against PVE upheld that principle: that once a city accepts property for public purposes the city cannot disregard the land use restrictions for that property.  

Q: Can you describe your own role in the Palos Verdes Estates case, in terms of types of work, length and extent of the commitment? Also, are others at your firm involved in this particular case, and if so, can you say more about the overall headcount, functions, and extent of the firm's role in the case?

I spent 226 hours over two-and-a-half years working on this case along with my trusted paralegal Jason Ebbens. We fought off multiple motions to dismiss brought by three separate law firms representing the three defendants. We sent Public Records Act requests on the city and spent hours studying the documents supplied by city staff. Ultimately, it was real property deeds and city resolutions from the 1940s that we obtained via Public Records Act requests that allowed us to win the case. We filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the real property deed restrictions from the 1940s should be enforced and the court agreed with us.

Q: How would you describe the firm's philosophy regarding pro bono, and what advice would you give to other firms that may want to enhance their pro bono programs and bolster attorneys' commitment to pro bono efforts?

I attended Loyola Law School, which was an early proponent of a pro bono requirement for law students. I was taught and believe that my law license is a privilege and that with that privilege comes a responsibility to give back to the community. As long as my firm is in practice we will always have one or two pro bono cases active. Some lawyers mistake “pro bono” for unpaid. In fact, there are many instances where a lawyer can take a case on initially pro bono and later recover attorney’s fees under California’s Private Attorney General Act, California’s anti-SLAPP law and other statutes. There are no shortage of people out there who need help and where recovery of attorney’s fees may be an option at the conclusion of the case.



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