Circuit Judge Chris Piazza
today awarded a total of $66,000 in attorney fees and expenses — far less than had been sought — to th e lawyers who won the state court case challenging the state ban on same-sex marriages.
He awarded $30,000 in fees and $3,000 expenses each to the Wagoner Law Firm and Cheryl Maples. They had sought much more — Maples at least $345,000 and Wagoner at least $95,748, though both had also asked for enhancements to normal fees that are allowed at times for meritorious civil rights claims.
Maples filed the state suit and Wagoner joined her not long after the case was filed. He also filed a separate lawsuit in federal court, which also produced a decision striking down the ban. A fee request is pending in that case as well.
Wagoner and Maples have become adversaries in the fee proceeding. The state and Wagoner questioned the amount of Maples' billing, saying it was excessive. Maples has said Wagoner was unhappy because some of the plaintiffs in the state case fired him as their attorney.
Piazza joked that he needed Maalox to read all the pleadings, but took no new evidence at the hearing. He said the lawyers had done an immense amount of work on the case, but he thought the fees they'd sought were too much.
The judge granted a request by an attorney for county clerks named in the case to relieve them from responsibility for paying the fees. That will be the state's responsibility. In court, Colin Jorgensen of the attorney general's office said the state accepted the judgment. Jack Wagoner said in court that he, too, accepted the decision and said, "We didn't get in it for the money." Maples didn't speak in court.
The case was filed on behalf of multiple plaintiffs July 1, 2013. May 9, 2014, Piazza struck down the state ban as unconstitutional. Some 500 couples married in the following week, before the state Supreme Court stayed the ruling pending appeal. The Supreme Court never issued a ruling in the case, finally dismissing the appeal as moot after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down same-sex marriage bans nationwide.
The fees granted today are only for the portion of the case heard by Piazza. Extensive pleadings were filed and arguments made on the Supreme Court appeal, but a request for fees there is all but ruled out by the court's failure to decide the case.
Both Wagoner and Maples are seeking fees in the federal case, in which Maples was associated in the later stages. The state has filed a motion in federal court challenging charges claimed in that case and Maples and Wagoner have a disagreement on the amount of work she did. A portion of Wagoner's expenses in the federal case were paid by the Arkansas Public Law Center, a nonprofit that supports public interest litigation. I'm a board member.
After today's hearing, attorney Cheryl Maples sat in her car on shady Spring Street in front of the Pulaski County Courthouse, smoked a cigarette, and wept.
"I devoted over three years of my life almost full time," she said, fighting through tears, "and I thought it was worth more than that. So I'm disappointed. I could have done better at McDonald's, slinging hamburgers, for less than $15,000 a year."
She noted that the award was the lowest she knew of in the nation for an attorney who fought for same-sex marriage, one that she said she never expected from the Judge who made the original ruling allowing same-sex marriage in Arkansas.
Struggling at times to regain her composure, Maples said that she wasn't sure she had heard Piazza right until another attorney repeated the award amount he'd ordered. While the ruling can be appealed, Maples said, such an appeal would be difficult and unlikely to prevail. And it would cost even more of her time.
"I went through our savings," Maples said. "My husband is retired, and we lived off of our savings."
Maples said that taking up the case was a risk, but she felt that the Arkansas same-sex marriage ban was so unconstitutional following the Supreme Court ruling that they would surely prevail. She represented over 40 clients, and said there were many hours for which she didn't bill. She said that an attorney can make $30,000 "in a nasty divorce case in six months or less," and called the award "a slap in the face." While she is still proud to have helped bring same-sex marriage to Arkansas, she said today's ruling took some of the luster off her decision to take the case. She said the award would likely make other Arkansas attorneys reluctant to take up cause of LGBT civil rights in the future.
"I was so proud, and I'm still proud," she said. But added that it's not right for her to be financially ruined "when there's a federal statute that says there's got to be a good reason not to award a fair attorney fee. There's got to be a reason."
"A lot of people benefited," Maples said. "But it really ended up costing me a lot."
Wagoner said by e-mail later: "I'm grateful that I got paid for some of the work, pleased as I can be to have donated the time I did not get paid for, and grateful and privileged to have had the opportunity to play a role in the advancement of human rights."
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