Originally created 12/16/05

Lawyers bill state $16 million in fees



ATLANTA - Lawyers who sued the state to force a reform of the child welfare system are now asking taxpayers for $16 million in attorneys' fees and expenses.

State officials say they're outraged.

The lawyers, with the Atlanta-based firm Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore and the New York City-based group Children's Rights, signed a settlement with the state in July in the so-called "Kenny A" lawsuit, filed on behalf of children in state custody in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

The suit, filed in 2002, alleged that the state didn't have enough caseworkers, didn't try hard enough to place children with relatives instead of unknown foster parents and sometimes delayed finding permanent homes for black children in order to place them with black parents.

Under a commonly used formula for compensation in lawsuits, attorneys fees would amount to $7.2 million. But the plaintiffs lawyers argue that the complexity of the work done and the number of hours entitle them to more than $14.3 million on top of nearly $1.7 million in expenses.

"In some ways, this sort of feels like an abuse of an agreement that was meant to benefit children and families," said Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker, whose department includes the child-welfare system.

But the lawyers involved in the case say there's nothing exorbitant about the fees.

"From Plaintiffs' perspective, this case was a mammoth and risky undertaking," they wrote in court papers. "Class counsel accepted significant legal risk and devoted well in excess of 30,000 hours of labor over a four-year period on behalf of the class of more than 3,000 children. This work produced a comprehensive Consent Decree extending a wide variety of assured improvements in the delivery of government services to class members, ranging from enhanced caseworker attention and health services to more generous financial support for foster families."

Jeff Bramlett, who worked on the case for the Georgia firm, said it's common in class-action suits for the attorneys to receive a slice of any benefits their clients receive as a result. The lawyers estimate that the reforms instituted by the state are worth about $168 million for their clients.

"We're asking for 8.5 percent of that," Mr. Bramlett said. "And, frankly, that is a fairly modest request."

He pointed out that the state spent millions of dollars defending the lawsuit before the settlement was reached.

Mr. Bramlett said he thinks Ms. Walker's criticism stems from the fact that the state just doesn't want to pony up.

"It's been four years of long and hard-fought litigation," he said. "And paying the other side's lawyer is never something people want to do."

But Ms. Walker said the lawyers in the Kenny A case are trying to take credit for money spent statewide, not just in Fulton and DeKalb County, and not always in connection with settling the lawsuit. She said any money to pay for the attorneys' fees would almost certainly have to be taken from programs that would otherwise help children in the system.

"I just think that they know that this money has to come off the backs of children," Ms. Walker said.

She said even the $7.2 million figure seems steep.

"To add the $9 million to it adds insult to injury," she said.