Line Mtn. calls lawyer fees 'outrageous'
WILLIAMSPORT - Line Mountain School District has labeled as "outrageous" the $140,682 in attorney fees sought by the parents of a female wrestler the district said couldn't participate in the all-male wrestling program.
In a 17-page brief filed Thursday, attorneys Christopher Conrad and Nicole Ehrhart, from Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Camp Hill, said on behalf of the district that the rates and hours set forth by the counsel for Brian and Angie Beattie are "unreasonable, excessive, unnecessary and redundant." They provided what they argue are more relevant rates in asking the judge to reduce the amount and hours billed.
The Beatties and their attorneys have "failed to provide any relevant support to justify their rates," says the brief, filed in U.S. Middle District Court. It refers to the total as an "outrageous aggregate sum."
The lawsuit was filed after the district opposed Audriana Beattie, a seventh-grader, 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.
A judge granted the Beatties' request for a preliminary injunction Jan. 13, and the family two weeks later filed for payment of attorney fees, a common legal step in light of the injunction having been granted.
Bills for 5 attorneys
The number of billable hours expended by five Beattie attorneys totaled 337.3. They were at hourly rates of $525 for Abbe F. Fletman, of Flaster/Greenberg PC; $320 for Nella Bloom and $250 for Joanne Kelley, associates; $450 for Terry L. 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.
They provided four declarations of local attorneys stating their experience in civil rights litigation and their knowledge of services provided by other local attorneys and their rates.
The demand for fees "is incredibly troublesome given the relatively straightforward factual background and legal issues involved," the district's attorneys argue. "The issues presented, although certainly important to all parties, were not particularly novel."
Fletman acknowledges in her own filings she served as council in multiple civil rights cases that focused on the rights of female athletes participating in sports, Conrad and Ehrhart wrote.
"It remains curious why she (Fletman) sought co-counsel with equivalent, if not more extensive, legal experience in civil rights litigation," they said. "Clearly, Ms. Fletman could have used the assistance of an associate attorney or paralegal to provide the necessary litigation support up through and including the preliminary injunction."
Fromson, though she sat at the counsel table, did not present any arguments nor did she question or cross examine any witness, the attorneys said.
The parties did not engage in any discovery, the hearing for the preliminary injunction lasted one day and the Beatties' attorneys offered testimony of two witness, they said. "Yet somehow plaintiffs' counsel incredibly billed an aggregate of 337.3 hours through the conclusion of the preliminary injunction proceedings," the attorneys said.
The Beatties have failed to establish the reason why they need five attorneys "working in tandem," they said.
The next step scheduled in the lawsuit is a case management conference at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, March 26. It will involve court personnel and legal representation from the two sides.
The district has otherwise said it is considering its options of whether to take the case to trial.
Fletman had said in a previous interview that it's common for parties to settle out of court after a preliminary injunction is granted, but she couldn't say whether that would happen in this case.
Audriana had wrestled for Line Mountain's elementary program, but last school year her parents were told of the district's gender-specific policy that would prevent her from competing on the junior and senior high levels.
The issue came to a head in April when the Beatties confronted the school board. With no resolution, they filed for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.
A federal judge granted both - a temporary order on Nov. 1 and the preliminary injunction on Jan. 13. The orders have allowed Audriana to continue wrestling with the district program until the case is resolved, either by settlement or by trial.
Audriana's final record for the 2013-14 Line Mountain junior wrestling season was 3-13, and this past weekend she won a state championship for females in her weight class. (See story, Page 12.)