A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Justice Department to pay more than $2.24 million in legal fees and costs in a long-running dispute over the conversion of private land for public use.
The market value of the land in dispute? About $883,000.
The government wasn't disputing the fact the plaintiffs’ lawyers were owed some compensation in the Rails to Trails case in Idaho federal district court. But DOJ argued the requested fee amount was far from reasonable, saying an award of about $685,000 was appropriate. The landowners’ attorneys said they should receive $2.4 million.
DOJ lawyers “vigorously contested” the litigation for nearly a decade before reaching a settlement with the land owners, a federal magistrate judge, Mikel Williams, said in his ruling this month.
Williams awarded the fees to three law firms that handled the class action: Ackerson Kauffman Fex, in Washington; Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason, in Minnesota; and local counsel in Idaho, the Walker Law Office.
“The court has obviously been involved in this case since 1999 and is quite familiar with the obscure issues surrounding this litigation,” William said. “It is convinced that the action could not have been prosecuted successfully but for the specialized expertise of AKF and Zelle that was unavailable among Idaho attorneys.”
It was not clear whether the Justice Department plans to challenge the award. A DOJ lawyer involved in the case, Kristine Tardiff of the agency's environmental and natural resources division, was not immediately reached for comment.
A lead attorney in the case, Cecilia Fex of the Ackerson firm, was not reached for comment this afternoon.
Fex said in court papers that the government “took private property that it had no right to take without paying for it, and for nine years vigorously denied it had done anything wrong.”
Denying liability for the land was the government’s top priority, Fex said, “but now defendant complains about the fees Plaintiffs incurred in vindicating their constitutional rights.”
An amended complaint was filed in Idaho federal district court in 1999 that addressed private ownership interest in an 83.1-mile railroad right-of-way from Weiser, Idaho to New Meadows, Idaho. A class was certified in 2000. From 2001 to 2008, the trial judge assessed the scope of liability.
DOJ lawyers argued, among other things, that there was significant duplication among the three law firms handling the class action and that excessive hours were spent on certain tasks.
Arent Fox partner Mark “Thor” Hearne II, who has successfully litigated similar suits against the Justice Department, said the government’s loss in Idaho continues a recent string of defeats in Rails to Trails cases.
Hearne estimated the overall cost to taxpayers in the Hash case at about $4 million—including the legal fees for the private attorneys and the government’s own costs over the decade of litigation.
“The Justice Department spent all of these taxpayer funds to resolve an $800,000 liability,” Hearne said. “Were a lawyer in private practice to manage litigation in this manner, he would not last long in the profession.”
Thousands of other claims are pending in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, he said.
The fee award in the case, Hearne said, demonstrates that DOJ’s litigation strategy “is an exorbitant waste of taxpayer funds. When the law is settled and the government owes these landowners a clear constitutional obligation to pay them for the property it has taken, there is no justification for protracted litigation.”