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‘Overlawyered’: Judge awards 8 percent of fees requested in jail rape case

Heather Cole//January 30, 2015

‘Overlawyered’: Judge awards 8 percent of fees requested in jail rape case

Heather Cole//January 30, 2015

A federal judge in St. Louis used phrases including “somewhat appalling” and “grossly excessive” when she took a hatchet to plaintiff attorneys’ fee requests in a case over a Macon County jail rape.

Senior U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton bucked an 8th U.S. Circuit Court ruling from last year when she slashed three lawyers’ hourly rates in her Jan. 26 order. She cut by almost two-thirds the amount of time one of the attorneys — Columbia lawyer Stephen Wyse — reported for his work and turned down altogether the amounts requested for two other attorneys’ work. She cut the result in half, citing a low degree of success. Throughout, the judge’s language for the plaintiffs’ attorneys was unsparing.

Ultimately, Hamilton awarded $74,000 in fees, or 8 percent of the $924,000 the lawyers had requested for their work representing Cody Walton, whose civil lawsuit against a jail administrator went to a three-day trial in October.

Walton claimed that jailers left cells unlocked at night, allowing a convicted rapist to attack him in August 2010 when Walton, then 19, was being held for stealing a truck and carrying a gun without a permit. The lawsuit alleged the then-jail administrator was aware that the rapist had assaulted another prisoner three months before the attack on Walton, and knew that jailers were ignoring the policy of locking cells at night.

St. Louis attorneys Jeremy Hollingshead and John Eccher of Hollingshead, Paulus & Eccher tried the case, which ended with a $60,000 verdict for Walton. Wyse, who has represented Walton starting in May 2011, recorded the most hours and had the highest requested amount of fees – more than $700,000.

“Upon consideration, the Court finds the number of hours reported by Plaintiff’s counsel in this case, and especially Mr. Wyse, to be grossly excessive,” Hamilton wrote.

“Upon consideration, the Court finds the number of hours reported by Plaintiff’s counsel in this case, and especially Mr. Wyse, to be grossly excessive.” Senior U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton

Wyse reported spending a lot of time on tasks that didn’t require nearly as much, such as helping prepare a schedule and filing a motion for an attorney to be admitted to the court for the case, the judge said.

“Finally, Mr. Wyse allegedly spent an extraordinary amount of time, close to 60 hours, reviewing what amounted to one and two line docket entries,” Hamilton wrote.

Wyse said the docket entries, about 200 at the time, included rulings and required careful consideration. In addition, the case went up to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a summary judgment ruling, involved complex issues and included tussles over the release of evidence, Wyse said.

“There was a lot of stuff that made this case more complicated, that I think warranted the full range of hours,” Wyse said. “But Judge Hamilton disagreed.”

Wyse’s calling in Hollingshead and Eccher resulted in a duplication of effort, Hamilton wrote, saying the case was “overlawyered.”

But Hollingshead and Eccher said Hamilton didn’t significantly reduce the hours they reported. She took off 29 percent for the firm as a whole, including paralegal time that was rejected, according to a Missouri Lawyers Media analysis.

The firm took a much harder hit on the size of hourly rates and the 50 percent reduction for the degree of success, Hollingshead said.

In setting the local rates for Hannibal, where the case was tried, Hamilton’s ruling countered an 8th Circuit ruling in May that upheld higher St. Louis rates for a Cape Girardeau civil rights case. But in that case, the plaintiff “produced evidence he could not secure competent counsel in the Cape Girardeau community,” the appeals court said, and the judge noted that the plaintiff’s attorneys had expertise in civil rights litigation.

In the Walton case, defense attorneys argued that the plaintiff offered no evidence that it was impossible to find counsel locally, Hamilton wrote. They also said that the trial attorneys’ affidavits didn’t show they had done extensive work in civil rights litigation. She agreed with defense arguments for a lower rate, and reduced the hourly rates to $150 for Hollingshead and Eccher, and $160 for Wyse.

Defense attorney Amy Ohnemus, of Hannibal firm Wasinger, Parham, Morthland, Terrell & Wasinger, declined to comment on the order.

Usually, judges award the firm hourly rates according to the overall market for the district the case is in, not just one division, Hollingshead said. In the past, they’ve almost always gotten $300 an hour, versus the $150 an hour rate Hamilton applied that’s applicable for Hannibal and attorneys with contracts with insurers for bulk work, he said.

Hamilton used Walton’s settlement demands in deciding to cut the amount she awarded in fees in half: the $60,000 verdict represented 2.4 percent of a one-time $2.5 million demand; or 4.8 percent of the $1.25 million defense attorneys said he later asked for. She also said he sued numerous defendants but only one claim was left against one defendant when he went to trial.

A federal rule makes settlement negotiations confidential and inadmissible as evidence, Wyse said.

“I think it’s inappropriate for the court to rely on it,” he said.

The verdict amount doesn’t reflect the full value of the case for Walton, Eccher said. Walton wanted to be able to speak about what happened in a public forum, and a unanimous verdict showed people believed him, Eccher said.

“It doesn’t show in the jury award, but that was very, very important,” Eccher said.

Hamilton declined to award any fees for the time of two attorneys, Derek Rudman of Rudman & Smith in St. Louis and Boston lawyer Jeffrey R. Chapdelaine, who reported spending nine and 21 hours on the case, respectively. She rejected the requests for awards for the two firms’ paralegals’ time, finding fault with how they were documented.

Chapdelaine’s preparation of Walton as a witness was unnecessary, as there were three other attorneys available for that work, Hamilton said. And Rudman, who reported $4,050 worth of work, didn’t actually join the case.

“The Court finds it somewhat appalling that Mr. Rudman requested any fees at all, considering his involvement in this matter lasted exactly three days and concluded with him declining to participate in any capacity,” Hamilton wrote in a footnote.

Rudman responded to a request for comment with an emailed statement that said he was asked by Walton’s attorneys to report his firm’s time.

Constitutional violation cases are generally complex, he said.

“We were asked to participate as co-counsel which required our investigation, research and analysis of the case which I shared with Plaintiff’s counsel,” Rudman said in the statement.

His firm didn’t have time to work on the case, though he believed it was “meritorious,” Rudman said.

The case is Cody Walton v. David Moore, 2:11cv48.

Fee reductions
Wyse Law Firm, Columbia
Requested Awarded Percent reduction
$450 hourly rate  $160 hourly rate 64
1.619 hours* 588 64
$712,310 in total fees $47,000 93
Hollingshead, Paulus & Eccher, St. Louis
Requested Awarded Percent reduction
$400 hourly rate $150 63
508 hours* 360 29
$195,540 in total fees $27,000  86
360 29
Law Offices of Jeffrey R. Chapdelaine, Boston
Requested Awarded Percent reduction
21 hours 0 hours 100
$12,000 in total fees $0 100
Rudman & Smith, St. Louis
Requested Awarded Percent reduction
9 hours 0 hours 100
$4,050 in total fees $0 100
*Includes hours for paralegal at $100 an hour

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