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    Attorneys lower fees in desegregation case

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 2000


    For years, Rick Escarraz has said his legal work for the plaintiffs in Pinellas County's decades-old desegregation case has been about principle, not about money.

    Now that his legal fees for 27 years of work are coming due, Escarraz has had a chance to prove his point.

    The St. Petersburg attorney has offered to reduce his fee by a substantial amount, to waive his fees for an 11-year period and to be paid over time. His co-counsel has agreed to a similar deal.

    The legal fees that will be presented to the Pinellas School Board next week still add up to $782,000 for the work of three attorneys. But district officials say the figure could have been a lot higher.

    "You have to remember, this case goes back to 1964," said John Bowen, attorney for the Pinellas County schools, who negotiated the fee payments. "It is a lot of money, but it could easily be double that."

    Escarraz, who has kept records of his work on the desegregation case since he started in 1973, calculated that he is owed more than $623,000 for a total of 2,548 hours of work on the case. However, he has offered to reduce his fees by nearly $60,000, and to waive fees for work done between 1973 and 1984, taking off another $25,000.

    Those reductions, totalling more than $85,000, would leave a balance of $537,803. However, the school district, which lost the case and therefore is responsible for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's legal fees, already has authorized two partial payments of $50,000 each to Escarraz. That leaves the district with a request for payment of $437,803.

    "It's never really been about the money; it's about the education of children," said Escarraz, who made it clear that he is uncomfortable talking about his fee.

    Escarraz, who works with a staff of one in a modest office in St. Petersburg, handles Social Security disability and workers' compensation cases in his law practice. He acknowledged Monday that the desegregation case has cut into his law practice -- and family life -- significantly. Until recently, he worked nearly 27 years on the case without payment.

    He has agreed to have the district pay him in annual installments over six years, interest free.

    Escarraz's co-counsel, Roger Plata, has agreed to similar reductions. Plata, who started work on the case in 1987, has documented 938 hours of work on the case for fees in the amount of $202,747. He has agreed to seek payment only for work done from 1990 forward, which reduces the claim by more than $148,000.

    "It's in the spirit of everything we've been doing, a spirit of compromise," Plata said. "We've still got enough issues to deal with without arguing over attorneys' fees."

    The agreeable negotiations over the fees in the Pinellas case are in stark contrast to the contentiousness surrounding the legal fees in the Hillsborough County schools' desegregation case. In that case, the school districtbalked at the request by the attorney. The fees themselves have necessitated court hearings and expert testimony, which add to the legal fees.

    Still, the Hillsborough case has resulted in a smaller fee -- at least thus far. Attorneys for the Legal Defense Fund collected about $208,000 for work in the Hillsborough case between 1958 and 1991. Then, last summer, Legal Defense Fund attorneys asked for another $469,000 -- just for work between 1991 and 1998. That is still being appealed.

    Other school districts have spent more on legal fees than Pinellas. For instance, Lee County spent more than $1.5-million on legal counsel as well as $306,000 that went to the plaintiffs in their its desegregation case from 1991 through 1999.

    Pinellas school board attorney Bowen said Escarraz and Plata's sense of compromise has saved the district a lot of money because the end of the desegregation case was negotiated and didn't result in an expensive courtroom trial.

    Attorney Norman Chachkin of the Legal Defense Fund has worked on the Pinellas case off and on since the 1960s, and he agreed to limit his fee claim to work done since April of 1999. His fee claim amounts to $43,925 and $15,083 for costs.

    "This is not something they have to do," Bowen said. "I'd like to say that it's my negotiating style that brought them to their knees, but it's not that way.

    "They're just acting honorably and not being greedy," Bowen said. "They don't want to hurt the school system and they recognize this money comes out of the education system."

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