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Requested hourly rate too high, judge says

HELENA - Four law firms seeking nearly $1.8 million in legal fees and expense money should get less than one-fifth that amount for their work on behalf of inmates who claimed mistreatment by prison officials, a federal judge decided Friday.

U.S. District Judge Charles C. Lovell said the state should pay the firms about $327,000 for representing inmates who contended their civil rights were violated in the aftermath of the 1991 Montana State Prison riot. Lovell said the lawyers wanted hourly rates too high for the type of work performed, and in some instances they sought payment for too many hours.

The inmates prevailed on only a couple of the claims against prison officials. But Lovell said the inmates' cases served a public purpose nonetheless, and he took that into account when deciding compensation for the lawyers.

Lovell said the inmates' litigation clarified the rights of prisoners and the duties of prison officials. It also aided "the search for truth about what happened following the riot - an event that undoubtedly will be included in Montana history books," he said.

He noted a jury did find some violation of inmates' constitutional rights and awarded punitive damages, albeit in small sums.

Inmates contended that they were beaten, kicked and denied medical care immediately after the four-hour riot, and that guards conducted unwarranted rectal searches about a month after the uprising.

Prisoners killed five fellow inmates in the riot that broke out in the maximum-security unit on Sept. 22, 1991.

Lovell awarded $211,962 in legal fees and expenses to Ron Waterman, who had requested about $1 million, and $54,602 to Palmer Hoovestal, who had requested $254,157. Both practice law in Helena. The judge awarded $31,272 to Scott Wurster of Whitefish, and $28,643 to Wendy Holton of Helena. Wurster asked for $266,384 and Holton wanted $103,249.

The judge also ordered that 25 percent of some judgments won by inmates for actions after the riot go to attorney fees. It was not clear which judgments are covered, but the maximum the lawyers could receive is less than a few thousand dollars altogether.

Lovell reduced lawyers' billable hours, and the hourly fees.

He cut Waterman's fee from $160 to $125. The judge found Hoovestal, Wurster and Holton should get $100 an hour instead of $125. Paralegals should get $22 an hour, not the $35 to $55 that was requested, Lovell ruled.

He said considerations in deciding fees included the difficulty of the legal issues involved; the professional skill required; how much other work lawyers skipped because they were busy on behalf of the inmates; and fees in similar cases. The judge said the Montana cases "did not deal with rocket science and accordingly did not require counsel with extraordinary training or expertise."

The fee claim of a fifth lawyer, David Ness, was settled earlier. Ness left Montana and became a public defender in Tennessee.

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