Attorneys defend their fees
WILLIAMSPORT - The attorneys for the couple suing the Line Mountain School District on behalf of their seventh-grade daughter being kept off the wrestling team say their fees are justified, and criticized the district for its suggestion that the legal bills are "outrageous."
In a 22-page brief filed Tuesday in the Middle District Court of Pennsylvania, attorneys Abbe F. Fletman, of Flaster/Greenberg PC, and Terry L. Fromsom, of The Women's Law Project, noted the district's accusation of the plaintiffs' attorneys' billing for repetitive work and excessive hours.
"Yet the district fails to mention that it insisted on spending tax dollars to battle a 12-year-old girl who merely wanted to participate in a district-sponsored sport," they wrote.
The district could have chosen to abide by the federal and state constitutions, but even after being asked twice by Brian Beattie and being subjected to a temporary injunction, "the district plowed forward..." they said.
The lawsuit was filed by Beattie and his wife, Angie, after the district sought to prevent Audriana Beattie from joining the junior high wrestling team, arguing the sport is gender-specific. The Beatties said the decision violated equal rights clauses of the state and federal constitutions.
The school board voted Tuesday night to allow Audriana to wrestle, but the issue of $140,682 worth of attorney fees, a common legal step in light of injunctions being granted, is still active.
The number of billable hours expended by five Beattie attorneys totaled 337.3. They were at hourly rates of $525 for Fletman, $320 for Nella Bloom and $250 for Joanne Kelley, associates; $450 for Fromson, a managing attorney at the Women's Law Project, and $230 for Amal Bass, a staff attorney.
The hourly rates are inconsistent with the prevailing rates of Williamsport, which are between $200 and $325 for partners and between $150 and $200 for associates, the district's attorneys said.
The demand for fees "is incredibly troublesome given the relatively straightforward factual background and legal issues involved," the district's attorneys argued.
"Counsel to the Beatties certainly do not view this or any school district as a deep pocket from which to extract excessive fees," the Beatties' lawyers responded. "The Women's Law Project and Flaster Greenburg do not engage in unnecessary litigation, have no time to do so and seek every opportunity to resolve disputes without litigation, as they did in this case."
They added, "It is regretful that (the district) did not accept (the) plaintiffs' many invitations to resolve this matter without litigation or (settle) even after the litigation had begun."
Fletman and Fromsom said the district has failed to meet its burden to come forward with "specific and clear evidence to support its opposition to the claimed rates and fees."
They maintain the hourly rates are consistent with middle district rates, are reasonable due to the need of special expertise or when local counsel are willing to handle the case, they said.
According to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, only 23 of 5,446 cases filed between March 2011 and March 2012 have been civil rights cases, meaning "such cases are hardly common or frequent," they said.
The district also seeks to "bolster its vague charge of excessive hours by minimizing the work the Beatties' counsel performed, characterizing the facts and legal issues as 'relatively straightforward,' and implying that litigation of the entire case amounted to only a single day of hearing," the attorney said, referencing a Nov. 20 hearing in Williamsport, at which Audriana Beattie was among those who testified.
However, the case has been "extensive and much more involved than outlined by the district," they said. The work of five attorneys was "discrete and different," they wrote.
Fletman and Fromsom ask U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann to grant their request for attorney fees.
Should their request be granted, the district would surpass the threshold for legal fees covered in its insurance policy by as much as $70,000, it's been estimated.
Line Mountain is represented by attorneys Christopher Conrad and Nicole Ehrhart, from Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Camp Hill.