Line Mtn. to pay half of attorney fees accrued in wrestler case
WILLIAMSPORT - Line Mountain School District only has to pay half of what a federal judge called "unreasonable" attorney fees accrued during the district's unsuccessful attempt to block a seventh-grade female from joining the district's all-male junior high wrestling team, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. Middle District Judge Matthew W. Brann said the district will pay $70,948.89 to lawyers engaged by plaintiffs Brian and Angie Beattie, a reduction of approximately half of the $140,681.89 the couple requested.
The district disputed the fees billed by firms Flaster Greenberg and the Women's Law Project, both of Philadelphia, for a number of reasons.
The district argued redundancies in the hourly billing of three attorneys of Flaster Greenberg from multiple attorneys working on the same project.
The judge affirmed the district's case, writing, "Two experienced attorneys with self-asserted expertise in this area of law need to extensively review one another's work, as skilled counsel should handle complicated tasks on her own."
The court identified 38.8 hours when two lawyers at Flaster Greenburg had overlapping hours of "dubious necessity." As a result, the hourly billing for Flaster Greenburg was reduced by 17.2 hours for Abbe F. Fletman and 19.4 hours for Terry Fromson.
The district also argued against the hourly billing and expenses of Fromson, who served as spectator at a hearing Nov. 19 and 20. The judge affirmed that "presence as a mere spectator is not compensable," and reduced the billable time for Fromson by 13.8 hours, which represents her travel between Williamsport and Philadelphia and the duration of the hearing.
With the additional reduction, Fromson's total billable time shrank from the 113.8 hours claimed to 80.6 hours.
The district unsuccessfully argued against several other items in the billing by the two firms.
Brann also reduced the hourly rate billed by each attorney to align more accordingly with local attorney fees.
The Beatties had argued they had hired two Philadelphia area law firms that billed hourly rates higher than normal for the Middle District region because no local law firm had expertise in the required field and no local law firm would take the case. Additionally, they said the local rate rule did not apply because "local" to the case refers to a larger area than the Middle District, which they have asserted to be limited to the city of Williamsport.
Brann dismissed each of these arguments.
Admitting that both firms were indeed especially experienced to handle this case, Brann wrote the Beatties had not "demonstrated that there exists no competient local counsel available such that there was a need to import that expertise" and that the counsel's "special expertise is not so exceptional that there was a need to draw counsel from a distant district for this matter."
The Beatties also failed to support their claim that no local law firms would accept their case, said Brann.
"The plaintiffs allegedly contacted only a single attorney in the Williamsport vicinage of the Middle District, which is neither a sufficiently exhaustive search nor a fair sample of the representation available in the community," he wrote.
The plaintiffs also failed to show a single declaration of not accepting the case from a Middle District firm, said Brann.
Brann also disagreed with the assertion that the Middle District is confined to Williamsport, listing the 13 counties it covers.
Hourly rates of individual lawyers were adjusted to align with Williamsport area rates, which were determined by surveying four local firms that have worked on similar cases.
Under the new rates, Flaster Greenberg was found to be entitled to $49,080.78 in fees and costs. The Women's Law Project is entitled to $21,868.11 in fees in costs.
Brann also issued an order closing the case, ending a battle that lasted more than a year between the Line Mountain Board of Directors and Brian and Angie Beattie on behalf of their daughter, Audriana.
The dispute began when the Beatties learned Audriana, who had wrestled for Line Mountain's elementary program, was forbidden by the district's gender-specific policy from competing on the junior and senior high levels.
The issue came to a head in April 2013, 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 Nov. 1 and the preliminary injunction Jan. 13. The orders allowed Audriana to continue wrestling with the district program until the case is resolved, either by settlement or by trial.
The school board unanimously decided March 25 to stop fighting the lawsuit and allow Audriana to wrestle on the district's all-male wrestling team.
In April, it abolished its gender participation policy.
Calls to Beatties attorneys, Line Mountain Board of Directors members and district administration Thursday were not returned.