Lawyer's Request for Fees Disputed
Attorneys for Some Sex-Abuse Victims Say Mcmurry Broke Pledge
By Peter Smith firstname.lastname@example.org
The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY]
Downloaded July 1, 2003
Several lawyers who sued the Roman Ca tholic Archdiocese of Louisville over sexual-abuse allegations say lead attorney William McMurry is reneging on a promise not to seek hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees that they say belong to them as part of the archdiocese's $25.7 million settlement.
They also question McMurry's proposal to divide the money among the 243 plaintiffs based on the severity of abuse they suffered.
The lawyers made their complaints during a brief procedural hearing on the June 10 settlement yesterday in Jefferson Circuit Court. Afterward, lawyers said they had received a letter from McMurry's co-counsel pledging not to seek fees for payouts to their clients.
"It seems to me just outrageous that they want to come and take the fee that I've earned from my clients, because theirs isn't enough, I guess," said J. Andrew White, who represents nine of the plaintiffs who sued the archdiocese. "... We think that's a bit predatory."
McMurry, who didn't attend yesterday's hearing, afterward defended his request for the fees, which he said is based on the work he did in representing the other lawyers' clients as well as his own in negotiations last month with the church.
McMurry sought those fees in a filing he made last week requesting attorneys' fees and expenses.
The controversy centers on McMurry's request for 20 percent of the payments to 26 other plaintiffs who were represented by 12 lawyers. That's in addition to his request for 40 percent of the payments to his own clients, as well as three others who represented themselves.
"It just seems a reasonable request," McMurry said. "If it's not reasonable, the court will decide that."
Jefferson Circuit Judge James M. Shake yesterday set a July 28 hearing to take up the disputes in more detail. At that hearing, Shake will hear any objections to the settlement and related issues before deciding whether to approve. Shake must approve the settlement and will set the attorneys' fees.
The fee dispute centers on an April 25 letter from McMurry's co-counsel, Ann Oldfather, to 13 other lawyers with pending cases against the archdiocese, part of an effort to combine the lawsuits into a class action for the purposes of negotiating a settlement.
The letter said in part: "It is our current intent not to request any fee award from the Court as Class Counsel beyond those fee agreements which currently exist between us, some of you and our clients."
White said the other lawyers decided to join the mediation process partly on the basis of that letter. "A deal's a deal," he said.
McMurry said the letter described his "current" intent — at the time of the April letter — not to seek fees from other lawyers' clients. But he said that after preparing for the media tion and negotiating the settlement over five days, he felt justified in making his request.
McMurry said the lawyers' decision to go to mediation should have been "based on what's in the best interest of their client, not on what is in the best financial interest of the individual lawyer."
"I find it a bit surprising that these lawyers cannot recognize the value of the services that I and my partners gave their clients," he said. "None of these other lawyers have ... applied anything like the amount of time and energy that we have in this case."
McMurry filed suits on behalf of 214 of the 243 plaintiffs. He is seeking Shake's approval of his agreement with his clients to receive 40 percent of the settlements they receive.
If each plaintiff received an equal share of the $25.7 million, McMurry's legal team could receive about $9 million in fees from his clients. Under those conditions, the amount of fees in dispute between McMurry and the other plaintiffs' lawyers would be $550,000.
Attorney Edward Stopher represented the archdiocese at yesterday's hearing but did not weigh in on the disputes. Under the settlement, the archdiocese has no role in determining how the $25.7 million is divided. A province of Franciscans, which was a defendant in some of the lawsuits, is sharing in that payout.
Some of the lawyers also are questioning McMurry's proposal to hire a Cincinnati attorney, Matthew Garretson, to decide how to divide the settlement among victims.
Under McMurry's plan, each plaintiff would be placed in one of five categories, based on how severely each victim was abused, with other aggravating factors also taken into account.
But Michael Slaughter, White's law partner, suggested during yesterday's hearing that the plaintiffs be polled to see if they would rather divide the settlement evenly.
But Judge Shake questioned why someone who "spent three months in some hospitalized situation" should receive the same amount as someone who suffered a less traumatic experience.
Slaughter replied that while he believed his own clients would get more money than average under McMurry's plan because of the severity of the abuse they suffered, "they would get their money a lot quicker" under an even split , "and there would be less expenses for everybody."
Doug Morris, one of McMurry's co-counsels, defended the five-tier plan, noting that Garretson has experience dividing multimillion-dollar settlements, such as those in a police-brutality case in Cincinnati and a vehicle-rollover case in Venezuela.
After the hearing, White suggested a compromise in which each plaintiff would receive an identical base payment in the "ballpark" of $50,000, plus additional money depending in part on the severity and frequency of the abuse.
During the hearing yesterday, Stopher also told Shake that the archdiocese was asking the court to toss out seven lawsuits filed against it after April 23, when the plaintiffs no longer had the option of joining the settlement negotiation. The archdiocese is arguing that the lawsuits should be thrown out under the state statute of limitations because they were filed years after the alleged incidents.
Six other lawsuits were settled earlier this year, and another plaintiff opted to pursue his case individually rather than participate in the mediation.
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