Attorney Fees Mount in Medicaid Litigation

, Legal Times

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Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia

Attorney fees continue to mount in a decades-old class action against the District of Columbia over the provision of health care services to children in low-income households.

Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia this week ordered the city to pay an estimated $623,000 in attorney fees and expenses to plaintiffs lawyers for their work between 2010 and 2012. The fees were in addition to more than $476,000 Kessler previously ordered for that same time period that was uncontested by lawyers for the city.

The case, Salazar v. D.C., is one of five remaining class actions filed against the D.C. government over how it cares for some of its most vulnerable citizens. In each of the cases, some of which have lasted nearly four decades, the city agreed to consent decrees that required court oversight until the city improved the delivery of services.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, led by Bruce Terris of Washington's Terris, Pravlik & Millian, sought $1.3 million for their expenses and fees from 2010 to 2012, but later reduced the request to $1.2 million. Kessler, in a Jan. 30 opinion, sided with the District and cut some, but not all, of the requested fees and expenses.

Getting out from court supervision has been a priority for the Office of the Attorney General, and they've had some recent successes. In 2012, the District resolved two cases-Dixon, which involved the city's mental health care system, and Petties, which dealt with services for students with special needs.

The Salazar case was filed in 1993. The plaintiffs accused the city of failing to meet the requirements of the federal Medicaid Act to provide screening and treatment services to eligible children. The city agreed to a consent decree in 1999, which included an obligation to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees and expenses.

Both sides were still calculating how much money the city owed overall for the plaintiffs legal work from 2010 to 2012, but the Office of the Attorney General estimated it would be around $1.1 million. A spokesman for the attorney general's office declined to comment on Kessler's opinion.

Kessler found the plaintiffs' lawyers billing rates were for the most part reasonable, but agreed to reduce rates in certain instances in which she found plaintiffs counsel billed "excessive" hours or overstaffed. She rejected the city's request for an "across-the-board" reduction of 20 percent.

Terris said there were two ways the city could stop paying fees: reach a settlement with the plaintiffs or comply with the consent decree's requirements to improve how the city provides health services to Medicaid-eligible children. Ending the litigation "benefits the children of the District, and they stop paying attorney fees to lawyers, which they obviously don’t like doing," he said.

"The fees, which the District has indicated many times they object to … very strongly, are the product of the case just sitting there for years and years and the District not bringing itself into compliance with the consent order it agreed to," he said.

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