NEW ORLEANS – A tort reform advocate says the Louisiana Supreme Court’s failure to reduce $457,000 in fees to a legal guardian for juvenile lead poisoning victims should be a concern to everyone.
In a 4-3 ruling on April 15, the state’s high court denied an appeal requested by Gary Gambel and Jennifer Willis, two of the nine attorneys representing public housing residents in a lawsuit over lead poisoning that has been in and out of court since 1997. The pair alleged that paying Carolyn Gill-Jefferson more than $30,000 for her services was excessive.
Gill-Jefferson, who served for 12 years as a civil district court judge for the Parish of Orleans, was related by marriage to former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson (D-New Orleans).
“A former judge is being taken care of handsomely by plaintiffs’ attorneys and other judges," Darren McKinney, director of communications for the American Tort Reform Association, told the Louisiana Record. "What should be clear, even to a Martian, is that something smells a little fishy."
McKinney said no one wants to deny personal injury lawyers the right to earn a living, but there should be some relationship between the number of hours worked and the fee for those hours. In this case, Gill-Jefferson’s earnings amounted to a cozy payoff by her colleagues, McKinney said.
In 2007, the Housing Authority of New Orleans and several insurance companies settled the epic class-action lead poisoning lawsuit for $65.5 million. Compensating the victims, however, created more legal challenges over the next decade.
The trial judge, Tiffany Chase of Orleans Parish Civil District Court, had ordered disbursements be made to victims. Yet no procedures had been established for preparing, filing and obtaining the required court authorizations for payments to more than 300 minors, Judge Paul Bonin said in the opinion explaining why the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the decision to award Gill-Jefferson nearly a half million dollars.
According to Bonin, little progress was being made to remit the settlement proceeds to the injured youths. The $457,000 awarded to Gill-Jefferson, $1,500 for each child receiving a check, was part of an ambitious plan to expedite the settlement, Bonin’s opinion said.
“I don’t know what is fair, but it’s not like years of labor went into this job," McKinney said. "She was assigned a task, which basically was a supervisory role. It wasn’t difficult or time-consuming. From a distance, it looks like the judges threw a bone to their colleague."
In the appellate opinion, Bonin said there are 10 factors that must be considered when determining whether a fee is reasonable: the amount of money involved; the ultimate result obtained; the responsibility incurred; the intricacies of the facts involved; the importance of the litigation; the legal knowledge and skill of the attorneys; the diligence and skill of counsel; the extent and character of the work performed; the number of appearances made; and the court’s own knowledge.
“There’s a huge discrepancy between $30,000 on the low end and $450,000 on the high end for the value of the services that were provided," McKinney said. "Common sense indicates that much of a difference suggests that this is one more instance of judges and personal injury lawyers in close cahoots, and that should concern everyone in Louisiana."