A federal judge has ordered the Tangipahoa Parish School Board to pay opposing attorneys in its desegregation lawsuit an hourly rate the board claims it never agreed to pay — despite a written agreement the board’s attorney signed.
Attorneys representing the parish’s black community are seeking payment for recent work in the 49-year-old case under a fee agreement filed into the court record in 2010. But the School Board says one of its attorneys signed that contract on behalf of the board and another of its attorneys without either one’s knowledge or consent.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, without referring to the agreement, ordered the board on Thursday to pay the contracted rate of $250 per hour, “subject to future court approved proposals.”
School Board attorney Ashley Sandage said Friday the board is still in negotiations with opposing attorneys and, if the issue cannot be resolved amicably, could ask the court’s magistrate judge to intervene.
Sandage said the board never saw nor approved the disputed April 6, 2010, joint agreement for attorney fees. Under the agreement, attorneys for the black community, or plaintiffs, were to bill the School Board for future work on the case at a rate of $350 per hour, discounted to $250 per hour due to financial strains on the school system at the time.
Sandage’s signed name appears on the contract, but she said she never approved or even saw the agreement until plaintiffs attorneys Cassandra Butler and Gideon Carter III billed the School Board in late 2013 and early 2014 using the $250 hourly rate.
Sandage said she was recovering from surgery when the 2010 agreement was drawn up and was not in communication with the board’s other attorney, Charles Patin. She said Patin signed her name on the contract, along with his own, but she didn’t know why.
Patin, who is no longer an attorney for the board, could not recall on Friday whether he signed Sandage’s name to the agreement. But he said he would assume he presented it to the School Board and that they approved it, “especially since they made a payment under it.”
School system records show the district paid nearly $36,000 to plaintiffs attorney James Gray on June 30, 2011, for work Gray performed between April 2010 and May 2011. Invoices Gray submitted to Patin — which were emailed to Sandage, Superintendent Mark Kolwe and the school system’s financial officer — show the work was billed at the $250 hourly rate.
Sandage said Friday the only thing the School Board agreed to in April 2010 was the payment of fees for work done prior to the March 2010 desegregation order that is still in effect. The board has never agreed to a billing rate for work done after that date, she said.
School Board minutes from April 6, 2010, indicate the board held an executive session on the desegregation case and, after returning to its regular public meeting, “accept(ed) board attorney Charles Patin’s recommendation relative to accepting the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees in the case.” The minutes do not clarify whether Patin’s recommendation addressed only past, or also future, attorney fees.
The board’s attorneys have sought to limit opposing counsel’s billing rate to the state attorney general’s 2008 fee schedule of $175 per hour for attorneys with 10 or more years of experience.
Plaintiffs attorney Nelson Taylor said the School Board’s refusal to honor the 2010 agreement was an effort to “chill, disadvantage and diminish” his and other attorneys’ efforts.
“There are not a host of attorneys chomping at the bit to become involved in protracted civil rights litigation,” Taylor wrote in an Aug. 17 motion for attorney fees. “This long-standing desegregation case is complex, involves an uncooperative school board that has been under federal court supervision for almost 50 years. It takes time and resources to monitor (the board’s) compliance with the court judgment.”
Taylor, who has not submitted invoices for any work done since 2010, said if the School Board wanted to disavow the agreement, the court should enforce the non-discounted billing rate of $350 per hour. Taylor also suggested the court adjust prior attorney fee awards to reflect the higher rate.
Lemelle declined to revise any prior fee awards.
The School Board has paid more than $2.6 million in legal fees, for its own and opposing attorneys, and another $2.3 million in related costs since the lawsuit was revived in 2007.
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