Bremer Family Winery is suing the local law firm that defended it in a Napa County code violations case that ended with a settlement the Bremers deem “unfavorable.”
The lawsuit claims that Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty failed to adequately represent the Bremers, resulting in negligence and breaches of contract and fiduciary duty. Allegations include having work done by an employee with little to no experience in California land use law and concealing this from the Bremers.
As a result, the winery suffered such damages as an unfavorable settlement, loss of income and future income and loss of more than a half-million dollars in wasted, unearned attorney fees, the filing said.
Bremer Group LLC filed the lawsuit in Napa County Superior Court, the same venue as its legal battle with Napa County. The Bremers are represented by Los Angeles law firm Makarem & Associates.
Carol Kingery Ritter, managing partner with Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty, released an email statement on behalf of the firm after being contacted by the Napa Valley Register.
The firm spent years of diligent and successful work on a highly technical legal matter involving county winery use permits and the county’s changing interpretation and enforcement of winery use permits, the statement said. The Bremers have filed a baseless lawsuit to gain leverage for their personal and unearned gain, it said.
“DPF’s professional obligations prevent us from discussing the details of the Bremers’ matter in the press, but we wish to make clear that we stand behind our work, our professionalism and our efforts in the Bremers’ representation,” the statement said.
During litigation, the Bremers’ actual motive in bringing “this meritless lawsuit” will become clear, it said.
Bremer Family Winery is located near Deer Park in the mountains east of St. Helena. John and Laura Bremer bought the winery in 2002, taking over a winery use permit granted by Napa County in 1979.
The winery hired Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty in September 2016 to work with the county to ensure the winery was complying with county laws after code violation notices. The Bremers accuse the law firm of failing to timely submit the required application materials.
Napa County filed its code compliance lawsuit against the Bremers in August 2017. In court papers, it called the winery “a continuing public nuisance.”
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The list of alleged violations included holding unpermitted marketing events, having too many visitors, using the wine barrel storage cave for events and tastings, renting the winery for events, using a tractor storage shed and grounds for a pizza oven and bocce ball court and making various improvements without building permits.
Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty continued representing the Bremers for most of the court case.
In Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty court filings for the code enforcement case, the Bremers said the winery’s 1979 use permit doesn’t limit by-appointment visitation. The county said the application for the permit called for one visitor daily and up to six visitors weekly and that this limit applies.
Subsequent filings by the county said Judge Victoria Wood in a tentative ruling apparently agreed with the Bremers. If that ruling becomes final, it could have significant and widespread impact on the county’s regulation of the wine industry, the filings said.
The case never went to trial. A settlement in February called for lower winery visitor numbers than the Bremers sought and for correcting building code violations, among other things. The Bremers must pay the county $271,464 for legal costs and give the county a $320,658 promissory note to be canceled if they comply with the judgment.
The local attorney signing the settlement on behalf of the Bremers is David Gilbreth, who is not with Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty.
In their lawsuit against Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty, the Bremers accuse the law firm of failing to ascertain the Bremers’ objectives, failing to head off litigation, failing to properly advise the Bremers of the pros, cons, costs, benefits and outcomes, failing to control litigation, charging excessive and unconscionable fees and performing unnecessary work, among other things.
One of the attorneys working on the case was not licensed to practice law in California and had little to no experience in land use law or California administrative agency litigation, the lawsuit said. If the Bremers had known this from the outset, they would have terminated the representation.
Dickenson Peatman & Fogarty has yet to file papers in court responding to each allegation. A Napa County Superior Court case management conference is scheduled for Sept. 25.
Jared Walder is an attorney with Makarem & Associates. He said his law firm is representing the Bremers in their case against Dickenson Peatman and Fogarty and that Gilbreth is representing them in wrapping up the code issues with Napa County.
Since Gilbreth took over, there has been great cooperation with Napa County and things are moving forward, Walder said.