Court: Athletic Association Must Pay $7 million in Fees

Apr 25, 2008

A district court judge has ordered the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) to reimburse the Communities for Equity (CFE) millions of dollars in fees in the aftermath of the court’s conclusion that the MHSAA violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment with its scheduling of girls’ sports seasons at times of the year when the respective sports were traditionally not played.
In reaching the previous decision, which was affirmed by the 6th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the court had found that the plaintiffs — parents, high school athletes, and advocates on behalf of Title IX compliance – successfully demonstrated that the girls faced numerous disadvantages as a result of being scheduled in the nontraditional season, such as not being able to compete in national competitions; not being on equal footing with the rest of the country with respect to college recruiting; and “receiving the psychological message that [girls] are second-class citizens or that their athletic role is of less value than that of boys.” A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court opted not to hear the defendant’s appeal.
The resolution of the merits of the claim left the district court to deal with the question of fees.
Among the many considerations before the court was the MHSAA’s “most financially significant objection questions whether plaintiffs’ numerous out-of-town specialists were reasonably necessary to the litigation and thus deserving of non-local attorneys’ rates. To resolve this issue, two questions must be answered: (1) whether competent counsel was available locally, and (2) whether the rates requested by Plaintiffs’ counsel are reasonable based on the applicable market.”
On the first point, the court found that the plaintiffs made “a good-faith effort to find local counsel.” See Gottlieb v. Barry, 43 F.3d 474, 485 n.8 (10th Cir. 1994). … Thus, Plaintiffs appropriately ventured to find competent counsel outside Michigan.”
Turning to whether rates were “reasonable,” the court found that the plaintiffs secured “nationally recognized experts in a complex field of federal practice. They are by no means the ‘median’ member of the bar, and their hourly rates should be adjusted upward to reflect both their specialization and the extremely high quality of the representation they provided to the plaintiff class. Such an adjustment is not simply reasonable, it is mandated by equity and fairness.”
The MHSAA did pick up a few meaningful victories, when the court concluded “that approximately 2,600 hours billed by Plaintiffs’ counsel should have instead been performed by paralegals.”
Taking all of the above and other arguments into consideration, the court reduced the requested attorneys’ fee award of $5,023,991.25 through an across-the-board reduction for “fees for fees” hours claimed and public relations hours claimed.
After deducting these amounts, the fee award is $4,921,241.25. This amount, however, is further reduced by a 10 percent across-the-board reduction for vagueness, excessiveness, and duplicity in the hours billed. Accordingly, the Court awards Plaintiffs Communities for Equity $4,429,117.13 in attorneys’ fees and $131,144.80 in costs, for a total award of $4,560,261.93. Prejudgment interest is payable on the total award and shall be calculated from the filing date of Plaintiffs’ Complaint, which was 1998.
The court concluded that “this is a classic case of the obdurate defendant who digs in its heels while litigating the merits of an action, loses, and then cries ‘foul’ when asked to pay the resulting attorneys’ fees and costs,” held the court..
Alexandria, Va attorney Kristen Galles, who was the CFE’s lead counsel on the case, told the Detroit Free-Press that “I’m glad the judge understood how difficult a case it was and how time-consuming it was. I’ve been working on this since ’95 with no pay whatsoever. We had to present meticulous records of what everything cost and how much time we spent on it. I think he applied the law and looked at it fairly.”
Communities For Equity, Et Al., v. Michigan High School Athletic Association; W.D. Mich.; Case No. 1:98-Cv-479


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