OPELOUSAS — The St. Landry Parish School Board on Monday asked a federal judge to throw out a request for nearly $10 million in legal fees from an attorney who filed the original school desegregation lawsuit against the parish in 1965.
Opelousas attorney Marion Overton White filed the request for legal fees in May after the long-running desegregation case came to an end earlier this year.
He is asking U.S. District Judge Tucker Melancon to award him $700 an hour for 14,136.5 hours of work on the case over the past four decades.
In court filings on Monday, School Board attorney Gerard Caswell argues that White lacks adequate documentation to justify the hours, that the fee is unreasonable and that thousands of the hours that White has billed “are excessive and are completely unrelated to this case.”
Caswell wrote that White’s request should be thrown out or that “the amount requested should be greatly reduced.”
White has remained a presence in the litigation since the 1960s, although in recent years much of the work to bring the school system into compliance has been led by attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The case came to an end in March with an agreement that requires the school system to continue several desegregation initiatives.
White is legally entitled to seek fees for his work on the case, but whether he gets paid — and by what amount — will be determined by Melancon unless the School Board agrees to a settlement.
In White’s request for attorneys fees filed earlier this year, he asked for a base rate of $350 an hour times two because of the complexity and length of the case, bringing to total requested fee to $700 an hour.
In the School Board’s opposition filed on Monday, Caswell writes that the base rate of $350 far exceeds the average hourly fee for attorneys in St. Landry Parish and that asking for twice that amount “adds insult to injury.”
A $700-per-hour fee is not unheard of in desegregation cases.
Three attorneys who represented plaintiffs in the Tangipahoa Parish school desegregation lawsuit asked for that hourly rate last year — a total bill of about $2 million for three years of litigation.
The judge in that case wrote that the $700-per-hour fee was not unusual for civil-rights work, but the attorneys later agreed to accept $874,000.
In the St. Landry case, the School Board disputes not only the fee but also the amount of hours that White says he worked on the case, arguing that White has not offered enough supporting documentation.
White submitted a 76-page detailed summary of his hourly work since the 1960s, but the attorney stated that most of the time records were reconstructed using court records, his personal files and his memory.
“I am a solo practitioner, and I never had a staff to assist me in keeping time records,” wrote White, who was an active local figure in civil-rights movement. “… I am certain that this reconstruction is far less than the actual hours spent on this case.”
A court hearing has not been set in the dispute.