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Lawyers in school busing case finally getting paid their due

Enrique Escarraz and co-counsel Roger Plata have been unpaid for years on the Pinellas desegregation case.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2000


Since 1973, lawyer Enrique Escarraz has represented Pinellas County's black schoolchildren without getting paid.

Now, with the racial discrimination lawsuit against the Pinellas school district finally nearing closure, Escarraz and his co-counsel have gotten their first checks -- a fraction of what each has billed.

Escarraz, lead local attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was recently paid $50,000 of about $373,000 he says he is owed by the Pinellas school district for his work from 1973 through December 1999. Escarraz's co-counsel, Roger Plata, has gotten a check for $20,000 toward about $127,000 he has billed from 1987 through the end of 1999.

"I didn't get involved in this to get paid," Escarraz said. "The issue is the education of the kids. We'll worry about money when it absolutely becomes something we can't survive without."

In 1964, six black parents sued the Pinellas school district, charging that the system discriminated against black students. A federal judge in 1971 agreed, putting the district under a court order that requires cross-county busing for desegregation.

Because the black families and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund prevailed in the lawsuit, federal law requires the school district to pay the plaintiff's fees, costs and other assorted bills. In addition to paying part of the bills submitted by Escarraz and Plata, the school district also has paid a court-appointed mediator about $50,000, officials said.

Escarraz and Plata have negotiated with School Board attorneys to end the court order and develop a new student assignment plan to integrate schools. U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday will hold a fairness hearing Feb. 28 and then decide whether to approve the settlement.

Until that time, both Escarraz and Plata needed checks to tide them over.

Escarraz, who runs his own disability and workers' compensation law firm, meticulously kept a 27-year record of the hours spent on the desegregation case. His time sheets -- detailing meetings, phone calls and legal research -- take up 57 typed pages.

In 1973, Escarraz charged $100 an hour. That hourly rate slowly went up through the past two decades to $225 an hour today. It is the same rate Plata charges.

The number of hours Escarraz alone has spent on the case is mind-boggling. In just 1999, he logged in 614.4 hours. Since 1973, Escarraz has recorded a total of 1,789.15 hours -- the equivalent of almost 45 40-hour work weeks.

Escarraz is uncomfortable -- even apologetic -- talking about his legal fees, saying it is more important to discuss student achievement, school assignment and other key elements of the settlement.

He said he first asked for money last August because he was steadily giving more and more of his time to the desegregation case -- which means less and less time devoted to paying clients.

"I needed to be able to pay the bills," said Escarraz, who is married and has three children.

In Tampa, the Legal Defense Fund and Hillsborough County School Board lawyers have argued bitterly over fees. Attorneys for the Legal Defense Fund collected about $208,000 for work between 1958 and 1991. Then, last summer, Legal Defense Fund attorneys asked for another $469,000 -- just for work between 1991 and 1998.

School Board attorney John Bowen thanked Escarraz and Plata for asking for a small amount upfront and agreeing to a payment schedule that the school district can handle. By taking that approach, Bowen said, the lawyers could concentrate on the negotiations without getting sidetracked by a fight over fees.

The costs to taxpayers would have been far greater had the case gone to trial, Bowen said.

"The law is clear, and they've earned it," Bowen said. "They're very honorable attorneys."

Once Judge Merryday approves the settlement and lifts the court order, the two sides will have to agree on a final bill for each lawyer. Bowen said he will have to review the time sheets Escarraz and Plata submitted to make sure the district concurs with the hourly rate they are charging and the number of hours they say they worked.

Even without those details worked out, Bowen said it was appropriate to pay Escarraz and Plata something for their years of service -- and certainly they are owed far more than the $70,000 they have collected.

After the lawyers on both sides agree on the cost and a payment plan and the School Board approves the arrangement, checks probably will be cut once a year until the bills are paid.

"The fees have to be paid because we lost," board member Jane Gallucci said. "I don't know why they haven't asked (for money) before."

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