Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in the Trinity Lutheran case that churches were eligible for taxpayer-funded grants as long as the money was used for ostensibly secular purposes. (In that particular case, the Missouri church wanted money to renovate a playground.) That decision is now being used as a loophole for churches to get taxpayer money for other renovations that directly affect their ability to conduct worship services.
Anyway, a Missouri federal district court recently handed down a different decision relating to the original Trinity Lutheran case that’s worth talking about. After the Supreme Court ruled in the church’s favor, all sides still had to settle how much in legal fees the defendants (Missouri officials) owed the plaintiffs (the church, represented by conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom).
The Christian lawyers demanded $891,610.41 in attorneys’ fees and expenses. A lot of money for Missouri taxpayers. But U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey, in a ruling last week, essentially dismissed how much they felt they were owed. And not by a little bit.
She wrote that the fees are supposed to be calculated based on “a reasonable hourly rate and the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation.” According to the church’s lawyers, here’s what ADF attorneys were entitled to for their work up through the Supreme Court ruling:
David Cortman: $357,223.05 ($695/hour)
Erik Stanley: $190,971 ($495/hour)
Rory Gray: $86,730 ($350/hour)
Joel Oster: $44,055 ($450/hour)
Christiana Holcomb: $14,120 ($200/hour)
Nice work if you can get it. There were other lawyers and other fees, but let’s just start there.
Judge Laughrey said those amounts were absurd because the church could easily have found cheaper attorneys in the area who were fully capable of representing them; instead, they outsourced the job to a conservative legal group whose rates weren’t commensurate with what they were owed.
Having researched fee awards in First Amendment litigation, the Court finds that most of the rates Plaintiff’s attorneys propose are not reasonable. As a preliminary matter, this is not a case in which the plaintiff was unable to find local counsel who could and would take its case.
Furthermore, there is no indication that Trinity Lutheran made any attempt to find other local counsel to take its case. Trinity Lutheran’s representative states that it “knew of no other attorneys — either based in Columbia, MO, or in the nearby areas of Kansas City and St. Louis — who had experience handling First Amendment cases like this one and who would be willing to represent the church for free, with absolutely no promise of future payment.”… Putting aside the fact that Trinity Lutheran quickly found exactly the type of local counsel it sought, the fact that Trinity Lutheran initially did not “kn[o]w” of other local attorneys who would take the case does not mean that it was unable to find other local attorneys to represent it.
The judge added that the other side’s lawyer, James Layton — whose experience included working for the state’s Attorney General’s Office for 22 years, arguing before the Supreme Court four times, and arguing before the Missouri Supreme Court 90 times — charged under $300/hour for his work.
The entire document boils down to this: Why the hell did you buy the most expensive items on the menu when cheaper-but-equally-nutritious-and-tasty options were available? The state doesn’t have to reimburse you for your wants, only for your needs, and you didn’t need this much.
In addition to that, the judge pointed out that the Plaintiffs’ lawyers billed for items that could easily have been taken care of by (cheaper) administrative staffers. They also wanted reimbursement for their pre-SCOTUS practice sessions — all 14 of them — but the judge said 4 was more than enough. The judge also eliminated payments for the lawyers’ time responding to media. (They chose to do that.)
My favorite unnecessary expense cited by ADF attorneys, then crossed out by the judge, was their attempt to get paid for learning the basics of the law. Here’s how the judge described it:
Plaintiff’s counsel claim to be experts in First Amendment law. They also had fully briefed the issues presented in this case before this Court and the Eighth Circuit by the time that they reached the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, they continued to research and draft memoranda on such basic First Amendment topics as “Establishment Clause,” “historical meaning of the establishment of religion,” “free exercise,” “Blaine Amendments,” “government funding of religion,” “special constitutional protection for religion,” and “government subsidies to churches”…
Similarly, after Plaintiff’s initial brief was filed in the Supreme Court, but before Defendant’s brief was filed, Plaintiff’s counsel drafted a “memo on the motion to dismiss standard and how such motions are reviewed on appeal”… While attorneys may be expected to refresh research conducted in lower court proceedings to ensure that it remains up-to-date and that no additional relevant case law is available for citation, the Court sees no reason why Plaintiff’s counsel should have spent approximately 200 hours at the Supreme Court stage researching topics they had already briefed and in which they should have been well-versed. The decision to conduct this basic research at the Supreme Court stage is all the more perplexing in light of the fact that the research and drafting of research memoranda continued well after the last Supreme Court brief was filed.
Wow. That’s the judge’s way of saying, “No one owes you money just because you’re stupid.”
Similarly, she also reduced the amount owed for “Time spent reading every decision cited” and “listening to oral argument in other cases” since the ADF attorneys should’ve been more familiar with the law relevant to their case. Check out this shade from the judge against the ADF’s lead attorney:
Mr. Cortman has been awarded the highest billing rate in this case because of his claimed expertise in First Amendment issues and his experience in Supreme Court advocacy. He cannot demand a higher billing rate while taking as much time to prepare for the argument as would a far less experienced attorney with unlimited time.
Ultimately, the judge reduced the attorneys’ fees to a more reasonable $401,198.75 (in addition to $32,593.21 for other expenses and costs). She also added this:
While this case was important, it was not unusually complex. The appeals arose from the Court’s granting of a motion to dismiss. There was no evidentiary record at all, and the alleged facts were simple. The fact that Plaintiff prevailed before the Supreme Court does not transform an otherwise focused case into a complex one, and it certainly does not justify exorbitant fees.
This is yet another reason why you don’t get legal help from a group that’s more interested in self-promotion and cash than correcting what they believe to be a constitutional problem. They still won the case, but it doesn’t mean they’re deserving of all the money they wanted in return.