A prominent line of defense has emerged for a newly appointed family court judge accused this month of false billing when she was working as a court-appointed lawyer representing abused children: Everybody does it.
District Court Judge Alicia Franklin, the subject of a criminal complaint alleging she broke the law by billing for more than 24 hours of work in a single day as a court-appointed lawyer in Child Protective Services cases, has explained the high hours by saying she was billing for work done by associates and support staff.
Her supporters say the payment voucher that lawyers submit for approval to the judges who appoint them does not include a place to indicate that anyone else worked on the case, which is why it appears that Franklin did everything, from home visits to post office runs to filing court documents. They also say that billing for associates or support staff is commonplace among lawyers, including those who primarily perform court-appointed work.
The applicable section of the Texas Family Code, which dictates what fees the attorneys can charge, says they “shall complete and submit to the court a voucher or claim for payment that lists the fees charged and hours worked by the guardian ad litem or attorney ad litem.”
An attorney ad litem is one appointed by a judge to represent the interests of a child or a person deemed legally incompetent.
“It sure does imply that it has to be hours worked by the actual ad litem and, I would think, especially for substantive work as opposed to more clerical things,” said Austin family lawyer Jimmy Vaught, chair of the family law section of the State Bar of Texas.
Vaught said he itemizes bills for private clients so they know what they are being charged for and said he would expect the same, or higher, standards for taxpayer-funded work.
His predecessor, Houston family lawyer Sherri Evans, the immediate past chair of the family law section, noted that the statute says “shall” rather than “may.”
Arlington-based family lawyer Toby Goodman, a former state representative who authored the 2003 bill that put that family code provision into place, said he has no problem with court-appointed lawyers billing for work done by associates or support staff but would expect it to be meticulously itemized and for the rates charged to be different for work done by the lawyers versus work done by their associates and staff, as it is in the private sector.
“If this particular judge is billing 24 hours out a day for her time and it’s not broken out, that’s inappropriate,” he said.
And now David Farr, the administrative judge for the nine family courts, has said he will start requiring lawyers he appoints to cases in his 312th District Court to sign a form swearing that they have billed only for time they personally incurred, unless they have permission to do otherwise. If nothing else, that ought to eliminate the wiggle room and ensure everyone is on the same page. I hope the other Family Court judges follow this lead.
Finally, while the story goes over Greg Enos’ role in all this, Enos is hardly sitting idle. His September 16 newsletter continues his investigation into the shady practices of Gary Polland, and he provides what he considers to be a better (though not sufficient) defense of Alicia Franklin. Check it out.