Atherton: Jon Buckheit ordered to pay county for attorney fees | February 13, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - February 13, 2013

Atherton: Jon Buckheit ordered to pay county for attorney fees

by Renee Batti

Editor's note: The fee award reported below was reversed on appeal in May 2014.

Atherton resident Jon Buckheit must pay San Mateo County $145,434 in attorney fees, a judge has ruled after agreeing with the county that Mr. Buckheit's claims against it in a 2009 federal lawsuit were frivolous.

Mr. Buckheit, who also named the town of Atherton and three of its police officers in the suit, said he has already filed an appeal of the decision.

The lawsuit stemmed from Mr. Buckheit's October 2008 arrest after a domestic violence incident in his home. He was never charged, and later was granted a declaration of factual innocence in San Mateo County Superior Court.

Federal Court Judge Joseph Spero last April dismissed Mr. Buckheit's $10 million lawsuit before it reached trial, and the county petitioned the court for about $152,042 in attorney fees. In January, Judge Spero ruled in the county's favor, but Mr. Buckheit challenged the amount. After a review, the judge lowered the amount by about $6,600.

In including the county in his lawsuit, Mr. Buckheit alleged that the town and county had entered into an agreement under which the county would create what he believed to be a discriminatory policy on dealing with domestic violence accusations. That policy was a major factor in the police officers' arrest of Mr. Buckheit instead of his then-girlfriend, even though it was Mr. Buckheit who called the police and reported that he had been assaulted, he said.

He also alleged that the county conspired with the town to retaliate against him after he petitioned the court for a determination of factual innocence. The retaliation involved refusing to provide a copy of the police report on the incident, he said.

Mr. Buckheit was able to obtain the report only after filing a legal action against Atherton, but continues to challenge District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe's assertion that his office didn't have a copy of the report to provide when the request was made.

Mr. Wagstaffe told the Almanac in 2010 that his office didn't keep the report after reviewing it and determining that Mr. Buckheit shouldn't be prosecuted. "That's how we do it: If the department decides not to investigate, we don't keep the documents," he said.

Judge Spero agreed with the county that the charges were frivolous. "The county should never have been a part of this lawsuit," he wrote in his ruling. "Plaintiff's grievances were with the town of Atherton, not the county.

"It was the Atherton police officers who arrested plaintiff, the Atherton police officers who wrote a factually incorrect police report, and the Atherton Police Department who temporarily withheld the police report from plaintiff. Plaintiff's claims against the county did not only fail for lack of evidence; there was no reasonable basis in law or fact to assert any claims against the county in the first place."

"The case is anything but frivolous," Mr. Buckheit told the Almanac, adding that he filed his appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal within 10 minutes of the decision's release. The judge, he said, made at least one "critical factual error" in his findings, "but he refused to hold a hearing, so we couldn't point that out."

Atherton City Attorney Bill Conners said the town didn't ask the court to require Mr. Buckheit to pay attorney fees after the case was dismissed because "our case was totally different." Because Mr. Buckheit was given a declaration of factual innocence and "there were some allegations that at least on their face had some merit, according to the court," he said, the town would have had a difficult time convincing the judge that the lawsuit was frivolous.