“Excessive” is the term many Oklahomans were using Tuesday to describe a New York-based child advocacy group's request that the state pay $9.5 million for their side's legal fees and expenses in a class-action lawsuit that pushed DHS into agreeing to child welfare reforms.
“The reality is we just don't have the money to pay that,” said state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, chairman of the House appropriations and budget subcommittee for human services. “It does seem excessive.”
Children's Rights Executive Director Marcia Robinson Lowry's request to be paid $700 an hour for 1,118 hours of work sparked particular criticism from Nelson and several other Oklahomans.
“I don't know of any attorney in Oklahoma who is able to charge a client $700 an hour,” said DHS Commissioner Brad Yarbrough.“That seems to be an extremely high hourly rate.”
Yarbrough said attorneys hired by DHS will scrutinize the bills and seek to persuade a judge to lower them.
Such a court battle would generate additional legal fees on both sides, which the state could be required to pay, Lowry said.
Yarbrough said he still believes it would financially benefit the state to contest the fees.
“Overall, I'm expecting they will help us to settle at a much, much lower cost,” he said.
Lowry said she doesn't believe her hourly rate is excessive.
“The general rule is attorneys bill at local rates,” she said.
However, when it can be shown there are no local law firms available with the expertise and financial backing to take on a case like this where millions of dollars must be spent upfront with a risk of getting nothing back, attorneys with national expertise are permitted to bill at national rates or prevailing rates where their offices are located, Lowry said.
Children's Rights filed affidavits from attorneys who said that was the situation in Oklahoma.
New York attorney Wayne Outten also filed a sworn statement saying he personally charges $1,000 an hour and believes the $700 an hour rate requested by Lowry is reasonable based on her expertise and location.
Lowry said Children's Rights could have billed for all its attorneys at New York rates, but used its “discretion” to submit bills for other attorneys at rates ranging from $175 to $375 an hour. The organization billed $100 an hour for work done by paralegals and legal interns.
Lowry's hourly rate wasn't the only thing that had some Oklahomans bristling.
In addition to billing for $203,886 in airplane and Amtrak charges, Children's Rights billed for more than $50,000 in other transportation charges including such things as taxi service, car rentals, tolls and parking. The latter charges included dozens of instances in which New York attorneys are asking Oklahoma taxpayers to pay for them taking taxi rides home from the office because they had worked late.
“I've worked really late on it, too, and I didn't charge for a taxi,” Rep. Nelson said. “Nobody made them take on the case, and nobody made them work late. It's not like they don't go home every day, anyway.”
Nelson said he had similar concerns about the lawyers billing more than $6,500 for “working meals.”
Even when Children's Rights attorneys were doing nothing more than resting while flying, they were billing the state at a rate of $175 an hour. The organization submitted a bill for 2,797.9 hours of travel time at the $175 an hour rate, for a total of $489,632.50.
Lowry said time spent traveling is time attorneys can't spend working on another case, and the law actually allows attorneys to bill for such time at their normal hourly rates. Lowry said she and the other attorneys agreed to bill at the lower hourly rate of $175.