The devil was in the details Thursday as attorneys for plaintiffs in the Charlottesville statues lawsuit presented explanations for why they should receive more than $600,000 in fees.
Spurred by a February 2017 Charlottesville City Council vote to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, various area residents filed a lawsuit against the city and the City Council. The lawsuit was later amended to add a vote to remove the statue of fellow Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Since then, the case has dragged through the circuit court for two and a half years.
Finally going to trial in Charlottesville Circuit Court this week, the only outstanding issues are whether to award damages and attorneys fees. The first day of trial saw Judge Richard E. Moore dismiss an outstanding motion related to an equal protection defense and issue of a permanent injunction preventing the statues from being removed.
In stark contrast to the packed first day of trial, the second day of the trial consisted of testimony from just two people: Jock Yellott, a plaintiff/paralegal, and Charles Lollar, an expert on legal fees.
On Thursday, Yellott presented a breakdown for the rates of each attorney, paralegal, consultant and expert witness involved in the plaintiffs’ side.
S. Braxton Puryear and Ralph Main, the senior attorneys representing the plaintiffs, charge rates of $300 and $310 an hour, respectively, Yellott said. Given their experience and level of knowledge, this rate is fair, he said, a claim Lollar supported later during his testimony. Each attorney has billed more than 350 hours.
“A tremendous amount of time and effort went into this case,” Yellott said. “As a paralegal for the case, I know I didn’t bill some of my hours, and I know Mr. Main did not either.”
In addition to Puryear and Main, Yellott himself is requesting fees at a rate of $160 an hour. Yellott, the executive director of corporate plaintiff the Monument Fund Inc., took over paralegal duties less than a year into the case after the departure of attorney Elliott Harding.
Harding, currently an independent candidate for state Senate in the 25th District, is also requesting compensation for the several months he worked in the case, at a rate of $230 an hour.
A significant portion of the fees come from Kevin Walsh, a law professor at the University of Richmond, who initially was hired as a consultant. Walsh, who charges a rate of $700 an hour, expanded his role in the case around the same time attorneys from the Jones Day law firm filed documents showing they would be representing most of the individual councilors.
The initial form of the lawsuit named Councilors Wes Bellamy, Kathy Galvin and Mike Signer and now-former Councilors Kristen Szakos and Bob Fenwick as defendants along with the city and the City Council as a whole. All, save for Fenwick, were represented pro bono by attorneys from Jones Day.
After Jones Day entered the case, the issues became even more complicated, Yellott said during testimony Wednesday, extending the work needed from the plaintiffs.
The councilors were dismissed as individual defendants in July after Moore clarified he could not find their vote to remove the Lee statue to be “grossly negligent,” thus granting them legislative immunity.
During his testimony, Lollar, who operates a law firm in Norfolk, said the fees requested by the plaintiffs were “reasonable” given the “highly complicated” nature of the lawsuit. Lollar also said that, in his opinion, the lawsuit was in the public’s interest.
“This was also a highly volatile lawsuit from a political standpoint,” he said.
In addition to attorney fees, the plaintiffs also are requesting $6,819 for transcript costs, $2,582 for litigation costs and $7,000 for each of the expert witnesses they did not call. Lollar said he would be receiving $12,000 for his expert testimony.
In total, the plaintiffs are seeking $604,038.33 in legal costs, as well as $500 for each plaintiff. The plaintiffs are two corporate entities — the Monument Fund and the Virginia Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans — and 10 individuals: Yellott, Frederick W. Payne, Edward D. Tayloe II, Betty Jane Franklin Phillips, Edward Bergen Fry, Virginia C. Amiss, Stefanie Marshall, Charles “Buddy” Weber Jr., Anthony M. Griffin and Britton Franklin Earnest Sr.
According to city officials, the city’s insurance company has yet to say whether it will cover fees if the city loses the lawsuit.
However, in that situation, the fees likely would be subject to an appeal, the pursuit of which would have to be formally approved by a majority City Council vote. That discussion is not anticipated until October. An appeal would have to be filed within 21 days after a final order is submitted.
The two sides are expected to present arguments for damages and fees when the final day of the trial begins at 9:30 a.m. Friday.