Louisiana must pay legal fees of man denied marriage license for lacking birth certificate

By Karen Kidd | Mar 16, 2018

NEW ORLEANS — The State of Louisiana will have to pay more than $150,000 to an attorney representing a man who sued after he was denied a marriage license because he doesn't have a birth certificate, according to a federal judge's recent order.

Attorneys for Viet Anh Vo, who won his case before the same judge about six month previously, did not get as much as they asked the court to grant - almost $213,000 - though they did get most of it. 

"The above costs, while recoverable are unreasonably high and this Court will add a 10 percent reduction," U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle of the U.S. District Court for Louisiana's Eastern District said in his order handed down Feb. 21.

"From the itemized list of costs submitted, much of the costs are attributed to the cost of travel for the numerous attorneys involved; including food and lodging. There was no traditional discovery taken. The straightforward nature of this action and clearly established law did not warrant a battery of attorneys expending duplicative time and expenses."

Lemelle ordered Vo's attorneys be paid a little more than $144,614 "in reasonable fees" and almost $10,141 "in recoverable costs," both amounts totaling almost $154,755, according to the order.  

In the fall of 2016, Vo challenged a state law that then required a birth certificate to marry. Vo, a U.S. citizen who was born in an Indonesian refugee camp in 1985 following his family's flight from Vietnam, had no official official birth certificate. He has lived in Louisiana since he was eight years. He and his U.S.-born fiance were denied a marriage certificate in 2016 because of Vo's lack of a birth certificate.

His lack of a birth certificate had become an issue on Jan. 1, 2015, after passage of House Bill 836, legislation aimed at reducing sham marriages in Louisiana by illegal immigrants after green cards. The law required anyone applying for a marriage license in the state to produce a birth certificate, valid international identification or passport.

Unable to provide a birth certificate, Vo and his bride went ahead with their wedding, a Catholic ceremony with 350 guests but without the marriage certificate. In October 2016, Vo filed suit, claiming the Louisiana law limited his right to marry.

Almost a year ago, Judge Lemelle blocked enforcement of the law and last May, a bill was introduced into the state House that would allow state residents to obtain a marriage license without a birth certificate.

For Vo's case, all that remained was paying his attorney fees but Judge Lemelle wasn't well pleased with the "exorbitantly high number of hours expended on this litigation," according to his order. Nine attorneys, a legal assistant and a paralegal submitted their billable hours, including Vo's counsel, who sought payment for "an alleged 960.0 hours expended, in less than 12 months of litigation," Judge Lemelle's order said.

"Upon review of the revised billing entries submitted by Plaintiff’s counsel we find many entries are either unproductive or duplicative," Judge Lemelle said in his order.

Lemelle said his court "recognizes the challenges in drafting pleadings and briefs for a constitutional civil rights case," but that the number of hours Vo's counsel reported "is unreasonable."

"A team of pro bono attorneys, with the experience and reputation of a firm like Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and organizations like NILC and NOWCRJ could have produced an identical outcome through implementation of a reasonable and more efficient litigation strategy."

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Louisiana House of Representatives Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana

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