San Juan Record Editor
Seventh District Judge Don M. Torgerson has ruled that Blanding resident Kelly Laws will not be required to pay more than a quarter million dollars in fees to the attorneys who represented Commissioner Willie Grayeyes in a residency case.
Lead Attorneys Steven Boos and Eric Swenson sought $271,271 for their work representing Grayeyes in the complaint filed by Laws.
The total included $17,069 in costs and $254,202 in attorney fees. The attorney fees are based on 630 hours of work over four weeks.
Laws filed a complaint in the Seventh District on December 28, 2018, arguing that Grayeyes had not met the residency requirement to serve as San Juan County Commissioner.
Judge Torgerson heard more than eight hours of testimony on the matter during a marathon hearing on January 22.
On January 29, one week after the trial, Judge Torgerson ruled that Grayeyes was a Utah and San Juan County resident and that he was eligible to serve as county commissioner.
The residency ruling states, “The Court has no problem concluding that Grayeyes maintains his principal place of residence in San Juan County.” It adds, “He is connected to San Juan County as deeply as any resident of the County.”
In his ruling, Judge Torgerson stated that the attorneys would “be awarded reasonable costs” but after the briefs were filed, the judge did not award any fees or expenses.
Torgerson wrote on June 21, “There is no basis to award attorney fees in this case.”
Attorneys for Grayeyes argued that attorney fees should be paid by Laws for several reasons, including that the entire action by Laws was based on bad faith.
Torgerson stated that Laws had justification to file the action, based upon his understanding of state law regarding residency.
He writes, “Laws’ claim had merit… The proof Laws presented at trial supported his belief that Grayeyes was not a resident of San Juan County. And although his proof was ultimately outweighed by other, more compelling evidence in the case, it does not diminish the overall merit of his claim.”
Attorneys for Grayeyes had also argued that fees were justified in the interest of justice and equity because Grayeyes is the first Native American Commissioner for the second commission district in San Juan County.
Laws and Grayeyes were the two candidates for the Second District of the San Juan County Commission on the November 2018 ballot.
Grayeyes won the election and secured the position with approximately 53 percent of the vote. He is the first Native American to represent the district and is part of an historic shift to a county commission with a Native American majority.
However, regarding the justice and equity claim, Judge Torgerson stated, “This is not a civil rights case. Instead this case is specific to one person and his qualification for office based on his residency. Evidence about his cultural background was marginally relevant to the question of residency.”
The ruling on the residency of Grayeyes has been appealed by Laws to the Utah Supreme Court.
The most recent ruling on attorney fees by Judge Torgerson opens up the way for the appeal to be heard by the state Supreme Court.
The appeal will focus on the process used by Judge Torgerson in making his decision.
Attorney Peter Stirba represents Laws in his initial complaint and in the appeal.