Justices affirm $176K award of fees to Lake Superior Court judges

Indiana Supreme Court justices affirmed a special judge’s ruling that 14 Lake Superior Court judges are entitled to recover nearly $176,500 to pay court staff, ending a two-year dispute.   

In a Thursday per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed appointed Special Judge W. Tobin McClamroch’s decision in In the Matter of Mandate of Funds for the Lake Superior Court; Lake County Council and Lake County Auditor v. The Hon. John R. Pera, et al., 18S-CB-442.

The case began in early 2017 when judges of the Lake Superior Court issued an Order for Mandate of Funds under Indiana Trial Rule 60.5, finding “valuable court employees were underpaid,” therefore endangering the court’s ability to continue operating in an efficient manner.

The order required the Lake County Council and the Lake County Auditor to provide funding, including scheduled raises, for more than 170 court employees across twelve job classifications. According to the council, complying with the order would cost Lake County between $1.5 and $2.3 million.

Following failed mediation attempts, the parties eventually agreed to settle the matter and that the county would pay “the reasonable legal fees and expenses incurred by the Superior Court in prosecuting the Mandate Action prior to the dismissal of the Mandate Action.”

Thus, it was agreed that the council had no further obligation for attorney fees in the matter. But the council found the judges’ request for $223,234.17 in legal fees and expenses to be excessive, according to the Thursday opinion.  

Those fees stemmed from 237.2 hours billed by attorney Jeffrey C. McDermott at a rate of $430 per hour; 309.4 billed hours of attorney William J. Barkimer at $245 an hour; 30.4 billed hours of attorney Matthew C. Branic at $245 per hour; 133.6 billed hours of a paralegal at $195 an hour; and expenses totaling $11,935.17.

McClamroch concluded that the judges’ expenses and attorney time entries were all reasonable in light of the case’s complexity, but that they shouldn’t recover any more than the reasonable and customary hourly rate for an attorney in Lake County.

He thus limited the hourly rate to $240 and hour per attorney, ordering the council to pay the judges $176,467.17 for fees and expenses.  

Supreme Court justices affirmed that determination, disagreeing with the council’s contention that the amount was “excessive” due to the lack of results obtained by the judges.

“Likewise, we find no merit in the Council’s argument that the award should be reduced because the case was not complex and the Judges’ attorneys overstaffed it and incurred unnecessary expenses,” the per curiam opinion states. 

“The Council’s own submission of approximately sixty pages of appellate briefing indicates the case was complex. And while the Special Judge acknowledged the Council’s objections, he found ‘the Judges’ counsel’s time entries and expenses are reasonable in light of the complexity of the Mandate Matter.’”

It further rejected the judges’ cross-appeal, among other things denying their request for an opportunity to submit evidence of their appellate legal fees and expenses.

“The agreement does not explicitly provide for payment of appellate fees and expenses. And, in any event, we conclude that an additional award for such expenses is unwarranted here. The amount already awarded — $176,467.17 — is substantial,” the justices continued. “The Judges have not incurred any appellate filing fee or costs for a transcript.

“Their appellate briefs largely repackaged the written arguments made to the Special Judge, and those briefs contain a cross appeal that lacks merit,” the justices concluded. “And the case has been pending for two years; further litigation over fees and expenses would increase the case’s costs to taxpayers and delay final resolution.”

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