Attorneys for DHS say nonprofit's lawyers' fees 'extraordinary'
BY DAVID HARPER World Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 03, 2012
10/03/12 at 7:32 AM
Attorneys representing Oklahoma Department of Human Services officials have claimed that lawyers for a New York-based nonprofit "have not even come close" to proving the reasonableness of their "extraordinary" $9.5 million request for fees and expenses in a federal lawsuit concerning the state's child-welfare system.
Instead, the defendants claimed this week in a Tulsa federal court filing that an award of between $2.6 million and $3.7 million would be appropriate "if the court determines that plaintiffs are entitled to an award at all."
In June, Children's Rights requested $9,520,419 for 36,187 hours of work by 18 attorneys and 13 paralegals for its work in the lawsuit, which was settled in January.
Late Monday, the defense filed its response to the fee request. In the pleading, DHS officials argued "denial of plaintiffs' fee award is justified by plaintiffs' grossly inflated fee request coupled with their failure to submit properly supported time records or expense documentation."
Besides alleged documentation problems, DHS claimed in its filing this week that - among other things - the plaintiffs have claimed excessive hours expended, improper paralegal fees, inappropriately claimed travel fees and that the $700-per-hour rate sought by Children's Rights Executive Director Marcia Lowry is unreasonable.
The New York-based nonprofit argued in June that Lowry's $700-an-hour charge, which is a New York rate, is justified for her unique and extensive experience in child welfare institutional reform litigation.
"Awarding Ms. Lowry's fees based on the hourly rates of boutique New York attorneys would produce a windfall," DHS countered in its Monday filing.
The settlement has led to a child-welfare improvement plan that is being overseen by an independent three-person panel.
Under federal law, a "prevailing party" in such a civil lawsuit is entitled to have its fees paid by the other side. However, the DHS defendants claimed in their Monday filing that the plaintiffs only obtained "very limited success."
"While the results obtained were highly favorable to the state of Oklahoma, the outcome for plaintiffs is far less favorable than in any other of Children's Rights cases of this type," the defense argued.
However, Children's Rights claimed in June that the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of nine foster children in February 2008 and gained class-action status in May 2009, has prompted "historic and comprehensive reform of the Oklahoma foster care system."
Since its founding in 1995, Children's Rights has sued at least 15 other states and jur-isdictions seeking improvements in child-welfare systems. It did not seek damages in the Oklahoma case.
"The result achieved by the plaintiff class is superior," the Children's Rights June 18 pleading stated. "Without requiring this court to actively intervene, the Oklahoma foster care system is now objectively accountable for its action in at least 15 key performance areas. The settlement agreement obtained by the plaintiff class may well serve as a model for systems across the country."
The nonprofit was sought by several Oklahoma attorneys and child advocates, who claimed no firm or organization in the state had the resources or expertise to challenge the child-welfare system that existed when the case was filed.
About $1 million was spent in non-recoverable costs by Children's Rights and its attorneys.
The cost to DHS for its defense has been about $7 million, and the commission approved another $2 million last fall.
Legal costs received by Children's Rights in other states include $6.4 million in Michigan and $10.5 million in Georgia.
Original Print Headline: DHS calls nonprofit's lawyers' fees unreasonable
David Harper 918-581-8359