Legal expenses climb in village, D86
Lawsuits and FOIA requests cited as main reasons for legal fees in the six figures
Last updated 7/22/2022 at 10:03am | View PDF
A lawsuit filed against the village by the Department of Justice and Trinity Sober Living has cost the village more than $1.5 million, with more than $689,000 billed this year.
“I feel bad about the size of the legal bills, but we are a defendant in these cases,” Village President Tom Cauley told The Hinsdalean. “We didn’t bring these cases.”
Cauley hired Chicago powerhouse Winston & Strawn to defend the village in the case, which claims Hinsdale violated the Fair Housing Act by not allowing Trinity to operate a sober living house with 11 residents in the village.
Cauley emphasized that Trinity never came to the village seeking reasonable accommodations or a waiver from the zoning code.
“I think there’s a really important principle at stake here — do villages have the ability to police their own residential single-family zoning districts?” Cauley said.
He acknowledged the three-year total is a “big number,” but said some or all of the legal fees might be recovered by insurance. Working with Winston & Strawn is similar to choosing an out-of-network doctor.
“This is a litigation matter that I think deserves somebody who has done these kind of cases before,” Cauley said.
The case constitutes the village’s largest in terms of fees, but it is just one of the legal expenses the village incurs. Legal fees have ranged from $773,787 in 2020 to $665,492 in 2021 to a budgeted $965,000 this year.
The village works with six different law firms to handle various tasks, including prosecution of local ordinances, labor negotiations, employment issues, towing impoundment hearings and Tollway expansion issues.
The village also is involved in a discrimination suit filed by the widower of firefighter/paramedic candidate Nicole Hladik, who took her own life in July 2020.
Before the case was filed, Cauley handpicked Eric Pruitt, a former federal prosecutor, to conduct an investigation into the matter at a cost of about $103,000.
“You have to make sure you get to the bottom of it right away,” Cauley said. “I want an independent assessment of if I have a problem or not.”
The actual case, however, is being handled by attorneys from the Intergovernmental Risk Management Agency, and legal fees are being covered by insurance. Cauley said he has confidence in their ability to defend the village in the case.
Hinsdale Township High School District 86 spent about $313,000 on legal fees through May. Totals for June, the final months of the fiscal year, are still being compiled. Legal bills last fiscal year totaled $441,000.
“Overall, the total legal fees that we expend don’t seem to fluctuate that significantly,” said Josh Stephenson, chief executive officer. The biggest variable costs are during teacher contract negotiations, he added.
The district’s largest legal expense is incurred in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. The district responded to 178 requests this fiscal year at a cost of $96,259, according to data on the district’s website. Since the 2017-18 fiscal year, the cost has ranged from $11,816 to $65,260.
Of the 188 requests the district processed in the first six months of this calendar year, about 38 percent required assistance from Hodges Loizzi Eisenhammer Roddick & Kohn, said Deb Kedrowski, FOIA information office.
“This percentage is higher than in past years due to the complexity of the requests we’ve received and the increased scrutiny of our responses by community members, board members and the press,” she said.
Legal counsel is involved when requests involve information protected under the law, such as personal/private student or employee information, and documents that fall under attorney-client privilege, she said.
“We typically seek help from our legal counsel on requests involving emails in order to ensure that the use of exemptions or redactions not only complies with the law, but also balances the public’s right to information with the right to privacy that is afforded to our students, staff and families,” Kedrowski said.
Requests involving published documents such as a course syllabus or enrollment report typically do not involve legal assistance, she said.
She also noted the board recently changed some of its policies related to redactions on FOIA responses, which should help reduce legal fees.
The district also uses attorneys to review vendor contracts, review district policies, handle property tax appeals cases and for certain financial transactions, Stephenson said.
Lawyers are involved in some special education issues as well.
“It’s really for more technical assistance, so if it’s a complex situation, if there is a due process hearing, those kinds of complicated situations are when we might have an attorney involved,” said Kari Smith, assistant superintendent of student services.
One other legal expense this fiscal year was an investigation conducted by Robbins Schwartz into an angry exchange between board members Erik Held and Jeff Waters following an Oct 28 board meeting. That bill was $7,237.
Community Consolidated Elementary District 181 spent about $136,000 in legal fees during the past fiscal year and has budgeted about $140,000 for fiscal year 2023, said Rick Engstrom, assistant superintendent of business and operations.
“A lot of our legal fees these past two years are due to COVID,” he said, noting the number of times new regulations were issued for students and/or staff. “Anytime something new came out, we were checking with our legal team.”