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Judge orders county to cover attorney fees of plaintiffs in 2005 civil rights case

Sep 25, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The majority of the $960,000 bill will be paid by the county's insurance provider.

A federal judge has awarded $960,000 in attorney fees to plaintiffs in a 2005 civil rights voting case against Fremont County.

Fremont County Commission chairman Doug Thompson said the county only is responsible for $85,000 of the total, however -- the county's insurance provider will cover the rest of the cost.

Thompson expects the county to pay its portion within two months.

2005 lawsuit

The attorney fees stem from a 2005 lawsuit by a group of American Indians challenging Fremont County's system of at-large voting for commission elections. The plaintiffs said the at-large elections diluted the American Indian vote.

As a result of the lawsuit, Fremont County has been split into five commission districts, and commissioners are elected by members of their home district.

According to the Associated Press, the issue of legal fees in the case had been pending before Johnson since early last year, when a federal appeals court upheld his ruling that struck down at-large county elections.

The bill

Johnson, in his order, stated federal code allows winners of civil rights and voting rights lawsuits to recover fees for their attorneys from the defendants in the cases.

The court calculated the bill by multiplying the hours that seven attorneys and four paralegals worked on the case, by the hourly rates for each individual.

The bulk of the sum, nearly $600,000, came from the 1,400 hours Atlanta-based attorney Laughlin McDonald worked on the case at $425 per hour. Fees for other attorneys ranged from $210 to $300 per hour, and for paralegals the rates were $60 to $85.

The money would go to the attorneys who worked on the case pro-bono.

Dispute

Attorneys for Fremont County disputed the fees the plaintiffs' lawyers requested. They argued that the hourly rates were too high, that legal staff duplicated work and that some expenses were unwarranted.

Fremont County argued that the court should base compensation on prevailing local rates for legal services. The county asserted that $250 to $300 an hour was typical in Wyoming for cases like the voting-rights one in question.

If it had been successful, the argument could have saved the county $175,000 or more. However, Johnson said "none of the defendants' arguments (were) persuasive."

"The plaintiffs were not aware of local or in-state attorneys who had filed or had shown an interest in filing such a case on behalf of American Indians," he said.

He said no local attorneys had interest in the issue, nor did they have expertise working on complex voting rights cases, or the ability to work without pay. The plaintiffs had to look outside Wyoming for lawyers, he said, and thus using an out-of-state benchmark was appropriate.

Johnson noted average hourly rates in Atlanta range from $476 to $900 for law firm partners and $302 to $655 for associates.

Three of the plaintiffs' attorneys were from outside of Wyoming. Johnson thought their rates of $300 to $425 were reasonable and awarded them that amount.

Others were from Baldwin, Crocker & Rudd in Lander and charged $210 to $250 an hour. Johnson said 14.4 percent of lawyers charge $201 to $300 an hour, so the requested fees were appropriate.

Fremont County also argued the plaintiffs unnecessarily had multiple attorneys at depositions, interviews, court hearings and conferences with clients. Attorneys for the county thought the local government should not have to pay for duplicate work.

Johnson again disagreed with Fremont county's argument.

"This was complex litigation," he said. "No fee reduction is required on this basis."

The plaintiffs' lawyers provided thorough billing statements to support their requests, he said.

The judge noted some of the county's objections were related to local and out-of-state attorneys attending the same events. He said the law sometimes required a Wyoming lawyer to be present along with those from outside of the state. In other instances, the duplication was justified because the non-local attorneys relied on local expertise about Fremont County.

Fremont County's argument that the lawyers charged for unnecessary travel expenses also did not convince Johnson. The judge thought plaintiffs' attorneys minimized their travel, noting McDonald made only six trips to Wyoming over the same number of years.

Reductions

U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson knocked $4,800 off of the original bill. He reducing the sum by $2,900 which had been billed by one of the plaintiffs' lawyers for 6.85 hours of legislative activities. An error generated on one law office's Quickbooks computer billing program also caused a $1,674 overcharge, which Johnson removed. Finally, the judge lowered the bill by $203 for unallowable office supply charges.

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