The nearly $900,000 in fees and expenses sought by attorneys who won a First Amendment case for Trinity Lutheran Church were excessive and unreasonable, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey ruled Wednesday, and she reduced them by more than half.
Laughrey awarded the attorneys a total of $433,792 for attorney fees and costs, an amount significantly smaller than the $884,755 originally requested. The state of Missouri will have to pay the fees Laughrey awarded.
Trinity Lutheran in 2013 sued the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for denying its application for a grant that would have covered the cost of resurfacing its playground with recycled tire material. The state said Trinity Lutheran, as a church, was ineligible.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Trinity Lutheran prevailed in June 2017. The high court ruled that denying a religious school a program available to secular institutions violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
On July 12, more than a year after the Supreme Court decision, Trinity Lutherans attorneys filed a motion requesting $830,915 in legal fees and reimbursement for $53,840 in miscellaneous expenses. The latter included money for travel, meals, snacks, office supplies and laundry.
The lawyers involved in the request included David Cortman, Erik Stanley, Jeremiah Galus and Ray Kaselonis of the Alliance Defending Freedom, along with Jonathan Whitehead and Michael Whitehead, who have their own law firm.
The Alliance Defending Freedom describes itself as an alliance-building, nonprofit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
The attorneys cited hourly fees ranging from $300 for Jonathan Whitehead to $695 for Cortman. Federal courts in Missouri, however, have generally found hourly rates between $200 and $375 reasonable, Laughrey said in her order.
Lawyers in Missouri experienced in litigating constitutional issues do not charge the kinds of rates that Plantiffs counsel propose, Laughrey wrote.
Laughrey also scrutinized the number of hours each attorney billed and cut those spent doing administrative tasks she said should not have been performed by an attorney, conducting excessive moot courts and traveling multiple times, doing public relations work, soliciting friend-of-the-court briefs, reading decisions and researching basic legal issues with which the attorneys should have been familiar.
In preparation for the case, the Trinity Lutheran lawyers traveled to 14 different moot, or simulation, courts across the country in locations such as Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. The court approved four of those but declined to pay fees or expenses for moot court preparation or travel.
The Court recognizes that a few moot courts are likely to be helpful in preparation for Supreme Court advocacy, Laughrey wrote. But the number, location, and staffing of these moot courts was unreasonable. The ordinary client would balk at funding such a number of moot courts, partly because at some point they would be more likely to benefit the participants and observers personally rather than the client.
The court also denied to grant payments for time spent at the Supreme Court level researching basic legal issues with which the attorneys should have been familiar.
Despite presenting themselves as experts in First Amendment law, the lawyers representing Trinity Lutheran continued to research and draft memoranda on such basic First Amendment topics as the Establishment Clause, government funding of religion, special constitutional protections to religion, free exercise and the historical meaning of the establishment of religion, Laughrey wrote.
The Court sees no reason why Plaintiffs 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, Laughrey ruled. 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.
Cortman, one of the Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, billed 200 hours at $695 each for reading in alphabetical order every single decision cited at any point in time in the case. That amounts to $139,000. Cortman also asked to be compensated for more than 100 hours he spent listening to other Supreme Court cases.
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, Laughrey wrote in her decision.
Michael Whitehead billed $333 for the nine-tenths of an hour he spent reading an Eighth Circuit order that was three sentences long. Whitehead also requested compensation for reviewing routine documents that the plaintiffs had already written and filed.
In addition, lawyers for the church requested compensation for 17 times more hours for its Supreme Court efforts than for those spent preparing for Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals arguments.
The parties presentations in each court were remarkably similar, and yet the discrepancies in time are startling, Laughrey wrote.
In total, the court reduced the 1,862 hours requested by 592.25. Trinity Lutheran sought $51,549 in expenses, and the court reduced that to $32,593 by cutting travel costs for moot courts deemed unnecessary as well as expenses for shipping documents, printers and ink, and snacks or dinners for the clients. The court also declined to pay for the attorneys laundry.
The Court finds that laundry is not a reasonable expense billable to a client, let alone to the other party in litigation, Laughrey wrote.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.
Trinity Lutheran fees ruling Trinity Lutheran fees ruling