W. Keith Lemieux, Jr. chairs Aleshire & Wynder’s Water practice. A recognized expert on matters of water, environmental and public agency law, Lemieux currently serves as City Attorney for the cities of Ridgecrest and San Gabriel.
Lemieux represents municipal and county water districts throughout California, irrigation districts, and groundwater sustainability agencies including the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority and the Upper Ventura River Agency.
Lemieux has had extensive litigation experience defending public entities and, particularly, water districts. He has appeared in all levels of court, including the California Supreme Court and the Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C. Issues litigated range from construction defect cases, inverse condemnation claims, water rates and fees litigation, and even defending alleged civil rights violations. Additionally, he has litigated cases involving the California Environmental Quality Act, the Clean Water Act, the Government Claims Act, those provisions of the California Constitution related to water rights, as well as the setting of water, sewer, and other fees and charges (such as Proposition 26 and Proposition 218).
Lemieux has drafted several sections of the Public Agency Officials’ Complete Source Book. He has contributed articles and lectured on the California Tort Claims Act, Proposition 218, and California conflict of interest law. He pioneered litigating the law of water rate setting when he tried one of the first cases to interpret Proposition 218 in the context of water rates. He has also had particular success in representation of cities and police officers in civil rights matters and other disputes.
Selected Representative Matters
- In re Groundwater Cases, Santamaria Group (2007) 144 Cal.App.4th 659: This was a toxic tort lawsuit filed by approximately 2,400 plaintiffs, claiming they had contracted cancer as the result of the delivery of water alleged to have contained approximately 13 toxic chemicals. Included among these claims were dozens of claims for wrongful death. Each claimant alleged 27 separate causes of action against each of the public entities. The claimed damages were well in excess of $100 million. As a result of this published opinion, it is now established law throughout the state that public entities may not be liable for the condition of their delivered water unless it can be shown that the delivery was in violation of state regulations.
- Hartwell Corp. v. Superior Court (2002) 27 Cal.4th 256: This published opinion also arose from the same toxic tort litigation described above. It stands for the proposition that the California Public Utilities Commission retains exclusive jurisdiction over regulated entities that deliver allegedly contaminated water.
- N.L. Nielson v. City of California City (2006) 133.Cal.App.4th 1296: A taxpayer challenged a flat rate parcel tax on the grounds that taxes based on the ownership of property are constitutionally required to be ad valorem taxes. The Court of Appeal held that the California Constitution did not prohibit a tax on the mere ownership of property provided the tax otherwise met the definition of a special tax.
- City of Santa Maria v. Adam (2013) 211 Cal.App.4th 266: This groundwater adjudication was resolved successfully on behalf of Mr. Lemieux’s clients after approximately ten years of litigation. The settlement resulted in a physical solution to manage the basin.
- Antelope Valley Groundwater: This groundwater adjudication was resolved after approximately 15 years of litigation. That settlement process was only completed after the parties had conducted five separate phases of trial to litigate the basin boundaries, the area of adjudication, the native safe yield, the federal government’s special reserve rights and, finally, the individual pumping rights of each party. Even after a settlement was reached, a final phase of trial was conducted so the settling parties could defend the settlement against a small number of non-settling parties that had not been granted any rights under the settlement. This matter is currently on appeal.
- In Calabasas Park Estates v. Las Virgenes Municipal Water District. A homeowners association brought an inverse condemnation lawsuit alleging that a water district water line caused soil movement that damaged four different residences, as well as the common areas and streets. Mr. Lemieux successfully resolved the case through mediation by demonstrating the movement was caused by expanding soil. Not only did the District avoid any payment but, since the homeowners association was a successor-in- interest to the developer by contract, Mr. Lemieux was able to secure payment on behalf of the District for repairs to the District’s pipeline.
- Charles Weber v. Las Virgenes Municipal Water District: Five landowners asserted liability through inverse condemnation against the District claiming a break in the District’s pipeline washed out a road that provided access to their properties. At mediation, Mr. Lemieux was able to successfully demonstrate that the destruction of the road was caused by the developer for one of the property owners. Again, the District not only avoided any payment but instead obtain approximately $100,000 from the insurance company of the property owners in order to pay for the cost of the District’s pipeline.
- Raleigh v. Law Virgenes Municipal Water District: Prior to the application of Proposition 218 to water rates, Mr. Lemieux was able to successfully defend the water rates of Las Virgenes Municipal Water District against a challenge that these rates were not related to the cost of providing service. The lawsuit had been brought by a local winery that demanded the District establish special agricultural rates. After a brief trial, Mr. Lemieux obtained a court order upholding the District’s rates.
- Benz v. City of Ridgecrest: This dispute between the City of Ridgecrest and its franchise trash hauler at the time, Benz Sanitation District, alleged breach of a franchise agreement based on certain modifications to the agreement requested by the city council. After investigation, Mr. Lemieux’s defense team determined the waste hauler had been defrauding both the City of Ridgecrest, as well as the County of Kern, as a result of certain unlawful practices. Mr. Lemieux brought this information to the attention of the California Attorney General, who then used the information generated by Mr. Lemieux to file a criminal complaint against the owner of the company, Paul Benz. Paul Benz subsequently pled guilty to fraud and agreed to pay in restitution more than $2,000,000 to the County of Kern and approximately $750,000 to the City of Ridgecrest, and dismissed the civil case.
- Valley County Water District v. Aerojet General Corporation: This was a Clean Water Act case against Aerojet General Corp. on behalf of Valley County Water District. Mr. Lemieux negotiated and drafted the Baldwin Park Operable Unit Project Agreement, which was a three-way agreement between various water companies, polluters of the San Gabriel Valley, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Under the Agreement, the polluters satisfied their requirements to the Environmental Protection Agency by paying for the construction and operation of five water treatment facilities, which cleaned the groundwater of the basin and provided clean water for municipal supply. This Agreement took 18 months to negotiate. The capital portion of the Agreement was more than $120 million (Valley County’s portion of that was approximately $30 million). In addition, the polluters pledged to pay over $15 million a year for operations and maintenance of these facilities until the groundwater is completely cleaned. The project has been in successful operation for the past 12 years. Mr. Lemieux is pleased to report that under the Agreement his client has never paid for any portion of the Project (not even the costs associated with the negotiations).
Speaking & Publications
- In re Groundwater Cases, Santamaria Group (2007) 144 Cal.App.4th 659
- Hartwell Corp. v. Superior Court (2002) 27 Cal.4th 256
- City of Vernon v. Central Basin Municipal Water District, et al. (1999) 69 Cal.App.4th 508
- L. Neilson v. City of California City (2006) 133 Cal.App.4th 1296