Fee fight

For lawyers, beating the city is only the beginning

To the victor belongs the spoils. Or so the saying goes. But if the victor happens to defeat the city of Dallas, his battle has just begun.

Just ask civil rights lawyer Mike Daniel. For the past year, he and fellow lawyer Betsy Julian have been trying to collect their legal fees from the city, which Daniel and Julian resoundingly thumped in a crucial segment of the protracted West Dallas public housing lawsuit known as Walker v. City of Dallas, Dallas Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 1992, the city of Dallas, et al., filed a motion asking U.S. District Court to approve building 2,000 units of public housing in West Dallas. After a vigorous year-long fight, Daniel and Julian prevailed, convincing the court to block the city from building the units. After all, the whole point of the lawsuit in the first place was to end the ghettoization of poor, minority residents.

Winning meant that the city, DHA and HUD were liable for the victorious lawyers' legal bill, which came to $700,000 for a year's worth of work. That bill includes the lawyers' fees, billed at an hourly rate of $275 an hour, plus the work done by their staff.

The law states that the prevailing attorney is entitled to the market rate of attorneys with similar qualifications and experience in a case of similar complexity.

The tricky part is determining the going market rate. Daniel used several yardsticks, including the customary charges of private attorney Mike McKool, who the city hired to represent its interest in this and other cases. His going rate is $350 an hour, though he gave the city a reduced rate of $250 for his work in the Walker case.

The combined bills of three private attorneys who did work on this case for the city and DHA came out to almost what Daniel and Julian charged, though the city's private attorneys spent fewer hours on the case.

Daniel cites other measures for determining his fee: federal judge's decisions in other cases, what the city paid him in other cases he won--between $250 and $390 an hour--and an affidavit from Dallas city attorney Sam Lindsey, who admitted the going rate for civil rights attorneys in Dallas was up to $250 an hour.

So what's the city's beef? Assistant city attorney Chris Whitmire, whose full-time job is handling the Walker case--and who gets paid whether the city wins or not--contests Daniel and Julian's bill on the basis of a State Bar of Texas poll--which the bar admits was scientifically invalid--that puts the going rate at about $150 an hour. The city is willing to pay Daniel $175 an hour.

Of course, by Whitmire's logic, the city overpaid its own private attorneys by $100 an hour. And they were the losing team.

"Lawyers for the city, HUD and the Department of Justice are uniformly appalled at the rates for private attorneys, especially if they represent poor people," says Daniel. "But they're not appalled at what the guys on their side charge--just the guys they lose to.

 
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