“Lloyd Kelley’s request for attorneys’ fees is excessive,” said John Barnhill, first assistant at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. “We feel it’s our responsibility to the taxpayers to point out where it’s excessive. We trust the judge will exercise good judgment and consider our comments.”
Kelley contended when he submitted his request for payment that courts should be as harsh on those who mount “frivolous defenses” as they are with lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits. But county officials say punishment or sanctions cannot be sought after a case has been settled.
“When I took the case, what should have happened is the county should have admitted liability,” Kelley said last month. “So they would have saved most of this money.”
By arguing unsuccessfully to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the county government, sheriff and deputies should be protected from the Ibarras’ lawsuit, Harris County delayed the trial three years and drove the legal expenses higher, Kelley said.
But enhancing those fees because of a desire to punish another party is unreasonable, the county argues.
The county is also taking issue with the $650 hourly rate charged by Kelley and his associate counsel Ben Hall and the $350 hourly rate charged by Kelley’s co-counsel David Tang.
County officials argue they should only have to pay the prevailing local market rate, which they suggest is closer to $250 to $350 an hour in Harris County.
County officials also argue the number of hours in the billing request submitted by Kelley and his associates — more than 3,400 — should be significantly reduced “due to a failure to document or demonstrate billing judgment.”
Some of Kelley’s expenses, including magazine subscriptions and hotel bills, appear unnecessary, the county’s attorneys said.
As I said before, I don’t think the fee-doubling-as-punitive-damages request is out of line, at least as a theoretical device. I have my doubts that the judge will see it that way, but it at least passes the laugh test for me. The hourly rate, I think the county has a good case for arguing that the prevailing rate or something close to it is what they should be billed; the rest is he-said/she-said. I expect that even if the county wins here, we’re gonna get stuck with a pretty big bill, which in addition to the settlement serves to prove Kelly’s point about how this could have been a lot less painful had the county sought to settle in the first place. Maybe they’ll learn from this for the next time.