The North Carolina Department of Transportation is shelling out tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars a month to outside law firms that are helping the agency handle a flurry of lawsuits over the state’s use of the Map Act and litigation over the Monroe Bypass.
Lawyers Weekly, a sister publication of The Mecklenburg Times, obtained through a public records request the DOT’s contracts with the outside firms, along with paid invoices. The documents show that some firms are getting paid substantially more than others for the same type of work.
The state is paying paralegals at the Raleigh-based firm of Smith Anderson $170 an hour. They’re making more than the senior partners at the Wilmington law firm of Hogue Hill, who have been billing the state $165 an hour.
Partners at Smith Anderson are getting $325 an hour while the firm’s associates make between $190 and $210.
The DOT also has retained the firms of Teague Campbell and Hartsell & Williams to defend against the Map Act suits. Partners at Teague Campbell bill $250 an hour, associates get $225 and paralegals make $125. Hartsell & Williams is charging the state $250-$275 an hour for partners, $200 for associates and $110 for paralegals.
Anne Fisher of HensonFuerst in Boone, who represents a group of landowners suing the DOT over its use of the Map Act, also filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the billing rates. The invoices that she and Lawyers Weekly received from the DOT did not include payments made to Smith Anderson.
DOT records manager Sophia Spencer said the Smith Anderson invoices had not been generated at the time of the public records request.
In April and May, the DOT paid $43,033 to Hartsell & Williams, $42,268 to Teague Campbell and $4,092 to Hogue Hill, according to the invoices.
Lawyers Weekly also received three of the DOT’s contracts with the Charlotte-based firm of Parker Poe, but those documents were not provided to Fisher. Two of the contracts specified work on the Monroe Bypass litigation and the third simply stated that it was for “real estate projects.”
The DOT is facing a lawsuit by several environmental groups who claim that the state and federal transportation agencies violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 in its revisions to a study on the environmental impacts of the Monroe Bypass. The revisions were made after the groups, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, were vindicated in May 2012 when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the transportation agencies failed to fully disclose their methodology and “falsely responded” to public concerns about data used to estimate traffic flow.
Construction on the project had been halted until the amended report came out and began in May. The SELC then filed a motion asking the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in North Carolina to halt construction until its lawsuit over the revised report is concluded. The judge has not ruled on that motion.
Parker Poe has billed the state $395 an hour for partners, $250-$305 for associates and $180 for paralegals. The firm apparently cut the DOT a deal, stating in one of the contracts that it typically bills $210 an hour for paralegals.
Partners at Parker Poe and Smith Anderson referred questions to the DOT. Attempts to talk with partners at Hogue Hill were unsuccessful.
When asked about the pay discrepancy between the various firms representing the DOT, Spencer wrote in an email, “Law firms base their fees on many different factors therefore, it would be unlikely that they would have identical fees.”
“Firms that have more experience in a given area of the law charge more for their representation,” she added. “An individual law firm could go into more detail about their knowledge, overhead costs, support staff and fees typically charged in that market.”
Property owners across the state have filed more than 230 lawsuits over the DOT using the Map Act to freeze property development and drive down the cost of land that lies in the path of proposed road projects.
The litigation ramped up earlier this year after the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in Kirby v. DOT that the state had to pay the owners a fair price for their properties. The state has appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
DOT representatives have said that if Kirby stands it will cost taxpayers an estimated $600 million to buy all of the Map Act land.
Based on that estimate, the state is incurring about $100 in prejudgment interest for every minute that the case drags on – or about $144,000 a day, according to Matthew Bryant, the Winston-Salem lawyer who spearheaded the Map Act litigation,
To view the contracts and invoices referenced in this story, see below.
Teague Campbell supplemental contract