The Albuquerque Journal is reporting that New Mexico’s Court of Appeals recently ordered a District Judge to recalculate the legal fees and costs sustained by a local newspaper in a public records case. The Rio Grande Sun and one of its reporters brought a lawsuit against the Jemez Mountain School District requesting they make available certain public records associated with embezzlement at the school.
The District judge originally awarded just $5,000 of a $30,676 fee request to the newspaper citing the lawyers’ “strikingly high hourly rates”. The judge also questioned the amount of time spent by experienced attorneys drafting standard, required pleadings. Although these are valid concerns under certain circumstances, the appeals court decided that the judge was wrong to cut the fee request so drastically. According to the court, the newspaper’s billing statements and other information in support of its fee request were not given enough consideration or authority. The judge also failed to “objectively assess the legal efforts needed to win the public records lawsuit.”
This ruling is important because properly awarded legal fees in public records cases offer an incentive to individuals trying to pursue difficult claims against government entities. More importantly, the ruling sheds light on the oversights that can so easily accompany legal bill review.