By Mark Cowling, staff writer
FLORENCE — A judge has ordered the town of Florence to cover $1.7 million in legal fees Florence Copper paid to defend itself against the town’s claims that the company had lost its right to mine off Hunt Highway when the town passed new zoning restrictions.
Florence Copper won that long-running, heavily-litigated case on Jan. 2 when Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Roger E. Brodman ruled that the company was still entitled to the terms of its 2003 Development Agreement with the town. The judge ruled again on the company’s request for reimbursement of legal fees on Friday. He further awarded the company $32,365.55 in costs.
The development agreement itself specifies that a party who has to take legal action to enforce its rights under the contract is entitled to recover attorneys’ fees, the judge said in his decision. He added Florence Copper is entitled to fees under both the terms of the contract and state law.
The town paid an estimated $1.5 million to pursue the case and must now pay Florence Copper’s fees as well. “That’s $3.2 million and counting,” the company said in a letter to supporters. In April, another judge ordered the town to compensate the winning parties by a total of $283,000 in legal fees and other expenses related to the town’s unsuccessful challenge of Florence Copper’s temporary state permit.
“We remain puzzled and discouraged by the decisions coming from the Town Council of Florence,” Brian Battison, vice president of corporate affairs for parent company Taseko Mines Limited, said Monday in a prepared statement.
“They continue their litigation tactics and spending, appealing previous decisions they have lost, challenging others, risking further cost awards that will likely go against them as well. The council seems completely undeterred by the financial impact of their decisions and seems quite content to continue racking up big legal bills at the expense of their citizens who are innocent in all of this.”
A town spokesman didn’t immediately have a comment.
The town’s attorneys argued that Florence Copper was at most entitled to recoup $10,000 as a matter of law, but the judge disagreed with that interpretation. The judge also considered factors that could limit Florence Copper’s recovery, including whether the award would be an extreme hardship.
“The court was not persuaded that a fee award would be an ‘extreme’ hardship to the town,” Brodman wrote. “… But even if there was some evidence of hardship, (it) is outweighed by other factors. The town decided to aggressively engage in multimillion-dollar litigation against Florence Copper in the face of a Development Agreement which, in the court’s mind, contradicts the town’s position. The town took a risk, lost, and should bear the consequences of this litigation decision.”
Florence Copper actually submitted bills totaling more than $1.8 million, but the judge found some duplication, along with “certain inefficiencies resulting from the use of so many firms.” Although one firm did the majority of the work, a total of four different firms did work for Florence Copper.