Judge awards $76,900 to Jeannette businessman, $158,427 in attorney's fees
A Westmoreland County judge awarded Jeannette businessman Frank Trigona $76,900 in damages and his attorney more than double that amount in fees in a “long, complicated and convoluted” legal dispute.
The case started in 2005 when the city withheld permits for rental properties because Trigona owed back taxes to the city. County court and a state appeals court both ruled in Trigona's favor, setting the stage for a trial last summer.
Judge Richard McCormick Jr. on Friday awarded Trigona $52,400 for lost rental income on one property and $24,500 on a second, but granted attorney Robert Lightcap of Latrobe $158,427 in legal fees.
The city is not protected by insurance and will have to find the money to pay Trigona and Lightcap.
The city is on the verge of being declared a financially distressed municipality subject to state oversight.
Solicitor Scott Avolio said the award will have a “drastic impact” on the city's financial future.
“From the city's standpoint, we were happy that the court found that our expert's report of damages was accurate,” he said. “The city is relieved that Frank Trigona is not going to be paid much, but the legal fees certainly hurt.”
McCormick said he based his decision on the expert opinion of real estate appraiser Gary Hayden, who was hired by the city. McCormick said that Hayden's conclusions on the amount of Trigona's damages “were derived from a sound economic basis.”
Appraiser John Lizza testified that his analysis of Trigona's losses in rental income amounted to $560,000.
Avolio objected to the fees sought by Trigona's attorney, arguing that they were unreasonable. But McCormick ruled Lightcap's fees were “necessary and reasonable.”
“The matter before the court is one with a long, complicated and convoluted history, involving issues of first impression in this commonwealth,” McCormick wrote. “The court has examined the hours and explanation for legal and expert services, as well as the costs expended, and finds that they were necessary and reasonable for the representation of the client.”
In 2005, Jeannette passed an ordinance denying occupancy and health permits to any landlord who owed the city money. A county judge overturned the law in 2006. The city appealed, and Commonwealth Court upheld the lower court's ruling.
Jeannette's insurance carrier told city officials that it would not pay for further appeals or any awards because the city decided to appeal against the carrier's advice, but the city went forward with a second appeal.
Avolio said he will consult with city council before deciding whether to appeal McCormick's ruling.
“I think we're going to review the decision and consider our action in light of an appeal,” he said.
Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.