NEW ORLEANS — It was unusual enough for the City of New Orleans to be sued by one of its contractors right after signing a one-year renewal with the company. Now the city has been held in contempt of court and fined after losing the lawsuit.
Jack B. Harper, the contractor hired by New Orleans to repair traffic signals, originally took the city to court in June after the city tried to line up a second company to do the same work.
The city argued that Harper’s contract was non-exclusive and a second company was needed in case of multiple emergencies.
But Harper countered that the whole point of a competitive bid process is that the low bidder gets the job without concern about do-overs. Furthermore, the company said it has never had any problem handling multiple jobs.
Civil Court Judge Rachael Johnson ruled in favor of Harper.
But even after the city lost in court, the legal battle continued as the city proceeded to solicit bids from other companies. To stop the city from going forward, Johnson issued a temporary restraining order.
Even with the order in place, the city solicited bids and opened a proposal from another company, Diamond Electrical, to do the same work at nearly four times the cost.
Harper asked for the city to be held in contempt, and in a ruling last week, Johnson agreed. The judge also ordered the city to pay a $1,000 contempt fine and pay all of Harper’s attorneys’ fees.
“The city was held in contempt. It's really unusual,” WWL-TV legal analyst Chick Foret said. “In her written judgment, Judge Johnson said the city of New Orleans being a sophisticated party to the litigation, willfully disobeyed her order not to proceed.”
In her ruling, Johnson wrote that the city “did not interpret the TRO to enjoin it from receiving and opening the bids. This court rejects that argument, and find it disingenuous.”
Johnson said her ruling clearly prohibited the city from “any bidding activity.”
“The Court finds that the language was unambiguous,” she wrote, “and Defendant is sophisticated enough to understand that the language…enjoined it from doing exactly what it did.”
Two influential trade groups – Louisiana Association of General Contractors and Associated Builders and Contractors – have followed the legal dispute closely.
“To be so brazen after a T.R.O. was granted, the next day to re-bid the contract while you have a legal ruling against you. That's bad policy,” said Jeb Bruneau, president of the local ABC chapter. “You're going to have other vendors, other contractors, that are doing work in the city that are going to be shying away from doing that kind of work in the future.”
“It seems like in this case the city is just running roughshod over the law,” Bruneau added.
Murphy Foster III, general counsel for LAGC, said, “The blatant disregard of a district judges’ order in this case by the city is unprecedented,” It is indeed worthy of contempt.”
Harpers’ attorneys said their client was blindsided by the move after the city awarded the company a one-year contract renewal in May through June 2020.
The law firm, Riess Lemieux, said it still tallying its legal fees to present to the city, but estimated that it would be more than $10,000.
The city did not respond to requests for comment.
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