TULSA — A federal magistrate judge on Wednesday recommended a New York-based child advocacy group be awarded $7,031,928 in attorneys' fees and expenses for its work on a lawsuit that forced DHS to make reforms.
Children's Rights asked in June for $9,520,419.
The Department of Human Services in October argued the group should get only $2.6 million to $3.7 million “if the court determines that the plaintiffs are entitled to an award at all.”
The child advocacy group sued DHS officials in 2008 in federal court in Tulsa. The class-action lawsuit was settled this year and DHS already is making major changes to its child welfare practices.
In a 29-page report, U.S. Magistrate Judge Frank H. McCarthy recommended cutting how much Children's Rights attorneys are paid for each hour they worked. He also recommended cutting or eliminating certain questionable or insufficiently supported expenses.
U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell will make the final decision. The state of Oklahoma is responsible for paying the award.
The magistrate judge specifically recommended the advocacy group's executive director, Marcia Lowry, be paid only $450 an hour. She is seeking to be paid $700 an hour.
That $700 “rate is supposed to reflect a New York City rate for an attorney with attorney Lowry's experience,” McCarthy wrote. “There is little evidence in the record concerning the market rate in New York City. More importantly, there is no evidence that attorney Lowry practices in the New York City market. All of attorney Lowry's practice is through Children's Rights which litigates in states outside of New York.”
In his recommendations on expense cuts, the magistrate judge specifically criticized the group for seeking reimbursement for such travel expenses as taxi rides in New York City for “working late.” He recommended the group not get $50,121 it is seeking for “other transportation.”
He recommended cutting $3,000 from the group's award because of instances “where it appears Children Right's picked up a meal tab for several diners or where the amount appears extravagant.”
In an emailed statement Wednesday, new DHS Director Ed Lake said, “We just received the magistrate's recommendations today but our initial reaction is that $7 million is excessive. The Legislature appropriated $4 million for attorneys' fees which we believe are reasonable. It would be a far better use of the state's resources to direct the difference in the amounts to the protection and care of the children served by DHS.”