Southern Poverty asks for $1 million in legal fees for jail case

The attorneys representing Orleans Parish Prison inmates in the federal lawsuit that led to a sprawling blueprint for reforms at the long-troubled jail have asked the judge to award more than $1.1 million in legal fees, citing the thousands of inmates involved and the sheriff’s resistance to reforms as two of the primary reasons for the hefty price tag.

The Southern Poverty Law Center submitted a detailed report to the court, running hundreds of pages with charts and spreadsheets of the time their attorneys and paralegals have spent on the case since September 2011, when they received the first phone call about the violent and inhumane conditions at the city jail.

The nonprofit organization noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has encouraged attorneys who file civil-rights claims to collect fees from the institutions they take on: “The Supreme Court has recognized the significance of the fee award to ensure that violators of civil rights, not the victims of civil rights violations, are forced to bear the expense of the violations and their attendant harms.”

The two-year-old litigation led to the looming consent decree, aimed at fixing a jail infamous for rampant violence, escapes, rape, drugs, weapons, shoddy mental health treatment and inhumane conditions.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s request breaks down to $1,019,635 in attorney’s fees and $145,300 in costs, for a total of $1,164,935.

They noted in the filing that attorneys from the Department of Justice and Shearman & Sterling, a New York-based law firm that donated its time for free, together worked more than 4,500 of hours on the case and are not seeking repayment, saving the city and sheriff some $2 million in legal fees.

They compared their requested hourly fees to that of the attorneys hired both by the city and sheriff.

State law caps their highest per-hour fee at $213 an hour. The primary attorney, Katie Schwartzmann, billed for 1,652 hours at $213, and another, Elizabeth Cumming, billed for 1,049 hours at $200 an hour.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman, comparatively, pays the law firm Usry, Weeks and Matthews a flat fee of $68,000 a week every two weeks, for about $1.7 million a year.

The city, secondary defendants in the case, hired private attorneys to handle the case for them — one charges $325 an hour and another $250 an hour.