Had James Slaughter lost his case, his clients would have been in deep — well, the polite term is “biosolids.” Instead, the Beveridge & Diamond partner came through in the clutch, winning an injunction in June that allows the city of Los Angeles to continue recycling its treated sewage sludge in neighboring Kern County.
The case was just one example of how lawyers at Beveridge & Diamond, which boasts it is the nation’s oldest and largest environmental law firm, relish tackling dirty subjects but believe in fighting clean. One opposing counsel, Washington solo practitioner Peter Enslein, called Beveridge & Diamond “highly regarded.…I found their lawyers to be highly professional and skilled litigators.”
The 96-lawyer firm is based in Washington, with outposts in six states. It counts companies including Sunoco Inc., Chevron Corp., The Dow Chemical Co. and Halliburton Co. as well as numerous municipalities as clients, and handles issues ranging from pollution control to pesticide regulation to global warming.
“We’re seeing more high-stakes cases,” said managing partner Benjamin Wilson. “Before, people thought of us as a superb regulatory boutique. Now, they also see us as litigators who can help with bet-the-company litigation in which environmental issues are raised.”
Consider Slaughter’s representation of the city of Los Angeles. In 2006, voters in Kern County passed a measure that would have banned Los Angeles from recycling biosolids at its city-owned “Green Acres” farm there. The biosolids are used as fertilizer to grow livestock feed. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the practice, but Slaughter acknowledged that the “yuck factor” no doubt influenced the “Keep Kern Clean” voter initiative.
“It was almost a crisis situation for the city and county of Los Angeles,” Slaughter said, as officials faced a patchwork of flawed and expensive alternatives for sludge disposal. The city challenged the measure in federal court and won an injunction, only to have it tossed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which ruled that Los Angeles lacked standing to bring a constitutional claim.
The city refiled in state court, and in June, Tulare County Superior Court Judge Lloyd Hicks granted the injunction, ruling that it was “reasonably probable” that Los Angeles would prove the ordinance was illegal.
“I feel confident in the city’s position,” Slaughter said, adding that the case sent a message to other rural counties considering banning biosolids.
Wilson said the firm’s work breaks down to about 60 percent litigation and 40 percent regulatory. “It probably was the opposite 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. Beveridge made no layoffs during the economic downturn, Wilson said, and to the contrary is looking for laterals to hire. About one-third of the work is done under alternative fee arrangements, he said.
One of the highest grossing practices is pesticide and biotechnology, led by Kathy Szmuszkovicz. Another evolving practice deals with product end-of-life issues and the handling of electronic waste. The Information Technology Industry Council, a longtime client, looks to Beveridge for its “focused environmental expertise” and “wealth of experience and credibility,” said Rick Goss, the council’s vice president of environment and sustainability.
The firm counts Sunoco as a significant client, working on matters including litigation stemming from the gasoline additive MTBE, alleged to have contaminated groundwater. Sunoco chief litigation counsel Sophia Lee described the firm as “top caliber,” with attorneys who are “smart, savvy and strategic.…On our litigation matters, they are truly team players with our in-house counsel team, mindful of our business and litigation strategies, and always at the ready.”
Firm lawyers racked up a recent win on behalf of Chevron — a victory that included the award of $975,000 in attorney fees and costs. Chevron had been sued under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act over environmental remediation of a refinery site. Beveridge partners Karl Bourdeau and Harold Segall prevailed on a motion to dismiss and early summary judgment. According to the attorney fee award, Bourdeau’s billing rate was $535 an hour and Segall’s was $450.
Another litigation highlight involved the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, which supplies water to 600,000 residents in the nation’s capital. The utility was sued in D.C. Superior Court for delivering allegedly corrosive water that caused pinhole leaks in copper pipes. The plaintiffs, who own five apartment buildings, wanted $5 million to re-plumb their buildings. Had the judge found for the building owners, it could have left the utility on the hook for every leaky copper pipe in town.
“We were very concerned about the precedent, both for D.C. water and other drinking water utilities, regarding the corrosion hypothesis,” said Slaughter, who represented the water and sewer authority with partner Nadira Clarke.
Following a three-week bench trial in May 2011, Judge Gregory Jackson found for the utility on all claims. The utility “sells water to be consumed. There is no dispute that the water is, indeed, safe for drinking, cooking and bathing,” he wrote. “The primary purpose of the water is not to keep plaintiffs’ pipes from corroding.”
Jenna Greene can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.