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Employee Spotlight
Caltrans Attorney Paul Brown at his desk, engulfed by paper.

Paul Brown Wins Award for a Labor of Law
by  Judy Gish
Issue Date: 12/2010

Attorney devotes seven years to proving Caltrans right and saving us a bundle.

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Caltrans attorney Paul Brown was surprised last month when he received a mysterious check from the State. Later, he discovered that he had won a Superior Accomplishment Award, which comes with a nice chunk of cash (well, half a chunk after taxes).

If it had been based on even a tiny percentage of money that Brown has saved the state in the case of Willemsen vs. City of Rancho Cucamonga, State of California, Department of Transportation, it certainly would have at least funded four years at the Ivy League university of his child’s choice.

The inverse condemnation case was brought in 2003 by 2,137 plaintiffs who owned 1,387 homes along the Foothill Freeway (I-210) extension from the Orange Freeway (SR-57) to the Corona Freeway (SR-15), a 40-mile area. Between $300 million and $400 million was sought in a class action lawsuit alleging damage and injury from noise, dust, pollution, vibration and odor due to the freeway construction.

As of now, all but seven homes have settled and Caltrans has not had to pay any settlement proceeds. “Mr. Brown organized, scheduled and pursued the inspection of every home involved in the lawsuit as well as the deposition of each plaintiff,” Deputy Chief Counsel Linda Harrel wrote in her Superior Accomplishment Award Recommendation. “Mr. Brown oversaw and coordinated the discovery into each plaintiff’s claims, interrogatories, requests for admissions and notices to produce.”

In addition to the monetary amount at stake, this case had huge repercussions because, if lost, it would have overturned the existing case law that states “unless a property owner can demonstrate physical harm to their property, identify the cause of the harm and prove that the harm was unique, peculiar and substantial to their property, a cause of inverse condemnation will not lie.”
 

Losing this case would have, in Harrel’s words, “opened the floodgates to large scale litigation against the Department for every new alignment or widening project.”

Brown became a practicing attorney in 1991 after graduating from Pepperdine University School of Law. He then worked for a private firm for four years before hanging out a shingle and working for himself. That option seemed to have fewer benefits by 1999, when he got married and “my wife got tired of me working 17 hours a day,” he said.

He joined the Caltrans Legal Division in the San Francisco office in 2000 and came to District 7 the next year (he’s from Orange County originally). “I enjoy the work a great deal,” Brown said. “A lot of issues are out of our (Caltrans) control, but I just focus on my work; my cases are very complex and challenging.”

Brown has a lot of respect for his fellow employees, all of whom he called “very professional” and said he enjoys working with everyone he has come across. “The general public doesn’t have any idea what we do and how hard we work,” he said.

One of the challenges Legal has to deal with is the tendency of judges, in trying to be as fair to the plaintiffs as possible, to overlook the actual law, Brown said. “We often have to educate them as to what the law is, as in the case of Willemsen.”

Additionally, litigation is very fast-paced. Caltrans has only one year to respond from the date a case is filed and the plaintiffs’ attorneys can wait up to six months to serve us.

Despite those challenges, “We do a very good job of winning cases or settling for significantly less than the plaintiffs’ demand,” he said.