The Anatomy of Public Corruption

In May 2013, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway hired Meyers Nave

California Powerhouse: Meyers Nave

By Jeff Sistrunk
Law360, New York (July 24, 2014, 2:55 PM ET) -- In less than three decades, Meyers Nave Riback Silver & Wilson has grown from a small municipal law firm in the San Francisco Bay Area into one of the leading firms for local governments and public agencies throughout the state as well as private clients focused on complex, public-facing transportation and development projects.

From winning landmark pension reform litigation for some of the state's largest local governments to marshaling the city of San Bruno through the aftermath of a devastating pipeline explosion to representing the city of Sacramento in its ongoing efforts to build a new home for the Kings NBA franchise, Meyers Nave has flexed its muscle in the areas of environmental, labor and employment, land use, eminent domain and constitutional law.

Meyers Nave's ability to get large projects completed, secure major litigation wins and resolve crises landed the six-office firm a spot among Law360's California Powerhouses.

"One of the things that sets us apart is the complex, high-profile, bet-the-farm litigation matters that public and private entities come to Meyers Nave to handle," said David Skinner, Meyers Nave's managing partner, adding that the firm also is "on the cutting edge of handling the largest infrastructure projects in the state."

Meyers Nave was founded in San Leandro in 1986 by Steve Meyers, Michael Nave, Libby Silver and Mike Riback, who came from small or solo practices and from public agencies.

"The idea of the founding partners at the time was to start a firm that was going to be practicing public law — those areas of law that pertain to the operations of government," Meyers said. "We all had some expertise in that area and thought we could provide those services to clients through a law firm that was exclusively dedicated to that kind of work."

Some of the firm's early work included serving as city attorney for municipalities in the Bay Area and beyond, including San Leandro, Dublin, Novato and Cloverdale.

Meyers Nave relocated its San Leandro office to Oakland in 2003, a move that coincided with the firm's expansion into new practice areas and regions. Today, Meyers Nave boasts a bench of 75 attorneys practicing in 18 distinct areas of law, with 50 lawyers located in the firm's Oakland headquarters and the others spread among offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno and Santa Rosa.

Amrit Kulkarni, chair of Meyers Nave's land use practice group, noted that the firm's expansion in the 2000s was driven by greater demand by clients for multidisciplinary legal services in connection with some of the largest and most complex transportation and development projects around the state.

Although Meyers Nave has broadened its reach, it has remained firmly in touch with its roots in public agency service, currently serving as city attorney for more than 20 California municipalities and as special counsel for many more.

The firm has taken the lead in helping local governments in California address issues relating to public employee pensions and retiree health care coverage.

"We've helped a number of agencies that have faced crises in which you had long-term labor contracts and very significant post-employment benefit obligations, and the agency sought to restructure those," said Art Hartinger, chair of Meyers Nave's labor and employment practice group. "We've helped to fashion long-term plans for fiscal sustainability and helped put those plans in place."

After a decade of budget shortfalls, the city of San Jose enlisted Meyers Nave to analyze its authority to tweak its retirement system via ordinances or charter amendments. The firm's analysis led the City Council to propose a ballot measure, known as Measure B, to create "second-tier" benefits for new city employees and increase contributions by current employees to their retiree benefit plans. The initiative passed with 70 percent of voters in favor.

But the city's plan was targeted in a slew of lawsuits by unions and retirees, which were consolidated and tried. Meyers Nave prevailed on a significant number of the issues, with a state court in 2014 validating 12 of the measure's 15 provisions. The case is now before an appeals court.

"A lot of eyes are on that case in terms of potentially making new or different law in the areas of pension reform," Hartinger said.

In another prominent case, the Ninth Circuit in February held that thousands of retired employees of Meyers Nave client Orange County don't have an implied contractual right to pool their health insurance premiums with those of current employees, affirming a lower court’s ruling in favor of the county.

Orange County had developed a multipart program to address an unfunded liability for retiree health insurance that was initially estimated at $1.4 billion, prompting the 6,000-member Retired Employees Association of Orange County to sue in an effort to force the county to reinstate a practice that had subsidized retiree health insurance premiums for many years.

Meyers Nave's expertise in representing public agencies also extends to the realm of crisis management. The city of San Bruno retained the firm immediately after a deadly pipeline explosion in September 2010 that killed eight people, injured several dozen more and destroyed 38 homes.

"Public agencies often find themselves dealing with areas of law that one might not easily predict, and this is one example," Meyers said. "I doubt that the city of San Bruno thought that they would be spending up to four years before state and federal pipeline regulatory agencies, and yet that's exactly what's happened."

Initially, Meyers Nave's job was to guide the city through the National Transportation Safety Board and federal regulatory processes, and that led to negotiations with the pipeline's operator, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. The firm secured a two-part settlement with PG&E — $70 million to compensate San Bruno for the disaster and $50 million to help the city defray the costs of rebuilding and dealing with the aftereffects of the blast.

In public investigatory hearings before the NTSB and the California Public Utilities Commission, Meyers Nave developed and presented much of the evidence that would later form the backbone of federal prosecutors' April 2014 criminal complaint against PG&E. The firm also prepared and filed San Bruno's request that the CPUC impose $2.25 billion worth of fines and penalties against PG&E for alleged safety violations leading up to the explosion.

"We still don't have some of the decisions out of the Public Utilities Commission on the prosecutorial matters that we've been participating in, but we have confidence that the results will be the largest fine of an investor-owned public utility in California's history," Meyers said.

While the San Bruno matter "has taken a great deal of our time and effort," it has resulted in "some pretty significant achievements working to the direct benefit of the city, but also helping California deal with aging infrastructure and pipeline safety," Meyers said.

"Ultimately, this will affect all cities in California that have gas distribution systems," he said.

Meyers Nave's work with San Bruno has led to other assignments from California cities and counties dealing with similar subjects and utility issues.

"The specifics of this case are probably not as important as the overall consequences of the assignment, in terms of building a practice area and building a firm that can deal with hot issues that require a multidisciplinary approach," Meyers said. "I think our experience with San Bruno has greatly benefited the firm and given us a whole new practice area within which to expand our operations statewide."

Meyers Nave's representation of both public and private entities in their development of large-scale projects around the state requires extensive coordination among attorneys across practice areas, as the projects involve land use, eminent domain, environmental, labor and employment, construction and other issues, Kulkarni said.

"We are very fortunate that we have a broad depth of expertise in these areas spread throughout our offices," Kulkarni said. "Our experts are available to our clients anytime, anyplace, regardless of where they're located."

In Southern California, Meyers Nave was retained by Los Angeles International Airport to advise on environmental compliance for its $3.2 billion master plan and runway expansion. That work led to the firm's retention by the Port of Los Angeles as outside counsel on transactional and litigation matters related to the port’s plans to expand the capacity, increase the efficiency and reduce the environmental impacts of its container terminals.

In May 2013, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway hired Meyers Nave to represent it in connection with the development of a $500 million high-tech intermodal facility that would allow goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to be transferred onto trains closer to the ports. The firm is defending BNSF in seven now-consolidated suits challenging the adequacy of the eight-year environmental review prepared for the project, in what Kulkarni said is one of the biggest California Environmental Quality Act suits currently pending in the state.

Further up the coast, Meyers Nave has been retained by the city of Sacramento to help implement its plan for revitalizing the city's downtown area, which includes a highly contentious proposal for a $477 million basketball arena for the Kings NBA franchise. In March, the firm secured a ruling granting the city possession of the vacant Macy's store presently sitting where the planned arena will be built.

"Our land use and eminent domain lawyers are working hand in hand with the city to ensure that the facility will be built on the schedule that is part of the deal to keep the Sacramento Kings in town, rather than moving to Seattle," Kulkarni said.

Meyers Nave is representing Sacramento in several suits stemming from the arena project, including environmental challenges. The project is so significant that the California State Legislature passed special legislation governing the litigation of the CEQA suits.

"We take great pride in being part of a team with our clients and we like to get results," Kulkarni said. "When lawsuits are filed, as is often the case with major projects, we litigate aggressively to ensure that our clients' plans and visions become a reality. Ultimately, the firm's greatest reward is seeing these projects built and contribute to the vitality of the state."

--Editing by Jeremy Barker and Katherine Rautenberg.

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