By Anna Lothson
A senior U.S. District judge has ordered the National Rifle Association to resubmit a recalculation of its lawyer fees after determining the fees for the lawyers and firms chosen to represent the organization in its case against Oak Park and Chicago were excessive.
Following the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Oak Park and the City of Chicago's handgun ban, the NRA requested the cities pay its attorneys' fees. According to a June 25 court document, the NRA submitted a petition claiming more than $1.7 million in fees and expenses for the cases combined. Oak Park was responsible for roughly $326,000 of that amount.
Village trustees passed a resolution in 2008 that accepted an offer from the city of Chicago to pay for Oak Park's portion of NRA's legal costs, but in 2011 city attorneys did not end up agreeing to the deal, according to a Wednesday Journal article published in January of this year.
The NRA was represented by several lawyers and firms, with Stephen Halbrook named as lead counsel. Attorneys from Freeborn & Peters law firm served as local counsel in the Oak Park case. Brenner, Ford, Monroe & Scott law firm served as the local counsel in the Chicago area. Cooper & Kirk assisted Halbrook in a handful of hours on the case.
Halbrook's claims make up about $1.3 million of the total, billing at an $800 hourly rate. He clocked 1,632.8 hours on the case, according to court documents.
Judge Milton I. Shadur ordered Halbrook, and the other firms involved to reduce their fees. Halbrook took the biggest hit, as the ruling calls for reducing his rate nearly by half.
The NRA argued Halbrook is entitled to that hourly rate based on the earnings of other lawyers who practice constitutional law.
"But NRA cherry-picked its asserted comparators from among the highest-charging lawyers in the country," Shadur wrote.
Shadur noted the NRA looked "exclusively" at rates of experienced Supreme Court litigators.
"This poses an obvious problem. Years of experience and field of practice are just two of many determinants of the market rate. … It won't do to set Halbrook's rate using only the top end of the group of lawyers as a proxy for his rate, when there is no evidence that Halbrook is a member of that subset," Shadur wrote.
Shadur stated Halbrook's own rates are a better measure of his market value.
According to court documents, the NRA pays Halbrook $225 per hour and other clients pay between $400 and $500. Halbrook stated in the court record that his rate for the NRA is "deeply discounted" and partly pro bono, because of his belief in defending the Second Amendment.
Shadur addressed that statement in his ruling.
"If Halbrook is sincere in his commitment to what he perceives as principle (and this Court does not question that), it is frankly difficult to see why he should be able to collect a windfall when it is someone else and not NRA that will end up paying the far higher bills," Shadur wrote.
According to court documents, the NRA says Halbrook provides discounted rates for his clients based on the same philosophy, but Shadur said there's not enough evidence to support the claim that he could charge the $800 hourly fee.
Oak Park and Chicago also suggested that many of hours logged were redundant, because a portion of the work was already done by other attorneys.
Shadur agreed and questioned the NRA on the scope of Halbrook's work, but said NRA provided a vague explanation of his hours.
"NRA has failed to submit evidence that allows this court to distinguish the reasonable from the unreasonable," he wrote.
Shadur ordered that Halbrook's billing rate be reduced to $450 an hour and reduced the rates charged by the other firms. Halbrook was also prohibited from claiming fees during a nine-and-a-half month period between August 2009 and June 2010 when work overlapped with other attorneys.
The NRA must resubmit its fee calculations by July 12, according to the ruling.
Simone Boutet, Oak Park interim village attorney had no comment on the ruling Friday. Village President David Pope said he was made aware of the ruling and said he would be willing to comment when the case is finalized.