Judge limits Lenape attorney fees

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:50

    Vernon-A judge has ruled that the attorneys representing the Lenni-Lenape Indians in their three-and-a-half-year battle against the township over historic designation of the Black Creek site at Maple Grange are entitled to fees for only their work over a 46-day period of heavy court activity at the beginning of the case. The ruling by Superior Court Judge B. Theodore Bozonelis in Morristown last Friday was cited as a victory by Joseph Ragno, the Vernon Township municipal attorney, and characterized by an attorney for the Lenape as more than the township would have paid had it accepted one of several settlement offers over the past several years. Gregory A. Werkheiser, one of four attorneys who worked for the Washington, D.C. firm of Piper Rudnick when the su35 it began in May, 2001, had filed papers with the court requesting $665,000 in fees for representing the Lenape in their suit against the township as well as in proceedings before six other governmental bodies. The court ruled that only the action in Superior Court for an injunction against the township applied. Bozonelis' ruling will significantly reduce the actual fees awarded, but how much he will order Vernon to pay Piper Rudnick and Werkheiser's present firm, Womble Carlyle, remains to be seen. Ragno said he anticipates a ruling by mid-October. It is also not clear whether Werkheiser's former and present firms will accept Bozonelis' ruling or appeal the judge's limitation on applicable fees under the law. The fees were sought under a New Jersey law that allows counsel acting pro bono for individuals or groups fighting to preserve the environment to seek reimbursement for successful litigation against a governmental entity. Ragno had argued first that the Lenape were entitled to no compensation because the township had acted legally. Bozonelis rejected that contention, but ruled in favor of Ragno's second argument that legal fees should be limited to the specific action the attorneys argued in Superior Court. Ragno also argued that the fees sought by "were not reasonable and were overreaching and unwarranted." He sought to have the fees limited to a $50,000 statutory cap that, Werkheiser argued, applies to towns that operate treatment plants but not to Vernon. The judge agreed with Werkheiser on that point. The judge is the sole arbiter of how much time and what rates the Lenape attorneys can charge. Whatever the judgment is, it will be paid by the township's insurance, but, officials pointed out, the larger the judgment, the more it will drive up the premiums for that insurance. After the court hearing, Deborah Israel, who, as a partner at the time with Piper Rudnick, worked on the case, told reporters that she estimated the fees at around $200,000. Ragno said he thought they would come in at a little more than half that. Asked about those figures, Werkheiser said of Ragno, "He's making that up. The judge made no determination of what an acceptable number of hours would be and what an acceptable rate would be." Ragno agreed that the no numbers were mentioned in court. "They were mentioned in the hallway to the press," he said. While Ragno and the township celebrated a ruling that will take a very large bite out of the original $665,000 invoice, Werkheiser said, "It's substantially more than the last settlement offer that went to the township. Even if it's as low as Mr. Ragnor wants it to be, it's more than the township was offered by us not very long ago." Werkheiser declin ed to say what that offer was. Ragno responded by saying, "Who knows that we could have done substantially better? Maybe we can still do substantially better." At Monday's council meeting, Deputy Mayor Janet Morrison excoriated Werkheiser, saying his firm drew out the legal proceedings in pursuit of the fees it could get from Vernon if it prevailed. "We found that a familiar culprit, which was greed, was behind it," she said. She said that had Werkheiser proceeded differently, the town would have its park and the Lenape would have their historic site, "with Rick Patterson as curator. "That didn't happen because of a greedy attorney." Werkheiser and those who fought with the Lenape have maintained all along that their only interest was to preserve Black Creek and the vast amount of legal work was in response to the town's efforts to develop it as a park Papers provided to the court and obtained by The Advertiser-News include a 16-page Piper Rudnick invoice for the period from May 21-July 9, 2001, during which the original injunction that stopped the township from developing the historic tract was argued. It lists four attorneys as working on the case, with Werkheiser being the principal litigator. The other three were Israel, along with associates Christoper Pantel and Neal Walters. Israel has since moved to Womble Carlyle along with Werkheiser. Werkheiser was just a year out of law school when an uncle who was interested in the Lenape and Native Americans asked him to take on the case. Werkheiser has said several times that he thought it would be a brief bit of work. Instead, it turned into an epic battle. He traveled several times from Washington to Morristown for proceedings and dealt with the 1,500 members of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe as well as with Vernon avocational archeologist Rick Patterson, activist Jessica Paladini and others. According to figures Ragno gave to the Vernon Township Council during his report at Monday night's meeting., Werkeiser billed for 329.3 hours at $200 an hour in the month-and-a-half period during with the Lenape were getting the injunction that saved their ancestral land. Pantel's billing, according to Ragno's accounting to the council, was 169.35 hours at $150 per hour, while Walters billed 40.3 hours at $230 and Israel logged 6.5 hours at $350. Ragno said that comes to $102,806.50. Neither attorney claimed to know what Bozonelis would decide, and neither put forward a dollar amount in court. "We're going to wait and see what the judge's full order will be before expressing our pleasure or disappointment," said Werkheiser.