Judge cuts $665,000 fee request to $25,000

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:51

    VERNON-The attorneys representing the Lenni-Lenape Tribe in their suit to stop the township from developing an archeological site asked a judge for more than $650,000 in legal fees. Tuesday, they got $25,000. "We will appeal," said Gregory Werkheiser, the attorney who was the principal counsel for the Lenape in the battle that began in May, 2001 and finally ended Tuesday when N.J. Superior Court Judge Theodore Bozonelis issued his ruling on the fees and dismissed the case that started it all. "Everyone can draw their own conclusions from what the court did," said Vernon Mayor Ira Weiner. "We're obviously pleased with the result, but we'd rather not focus on the past. We're much more interested in moving forward to start building a park. "That's what's really important to the people of Vernon." Weiner was referring to the recreational fields that the township will now build on 48 acres of the 180-acre Maple Grange tract. The state has agreed to buy the remainder of the property from the township for $804,000, including the 40-acre tract designated as a state and national historic site, under the Green Acres program. The state park will become part of Wawayanda State Park. Councilman Neil Desmond, the liaison to the recreation committee, said that plans for ballfields on the township land will be submitted to the state by December. He anticipates construction on the first fields and access roads to begin early next year. The town had originally hoped to build fields on the lower portion of the tract, where thousands of artifacts dating back 10,000 years have been founlocal avocational archeologist Rick Patterson, along with citizen activist Jessica Paladini, asked the council to preserve the historic land. When the council was unwilling to do that, the Lenape, the last Native Americans to inhabit Northwest Jersey, engaged Werkheiser, who, working pro bono, filed for an injunction to stop construction. The township began to bulldoze on the site on the morning of the hearing, and an immediate injunction was issued. That injunction was lifted Tuesday. The initial action took place over 46 days from May to July, 2001. Since then, the township tried to swap the Maple Grange site for a similar tract on Route 94 and Maple Grange Road known as the Van Dokkenberg farm. New Jersey law allows plaintiffs in environmental cases to recover legal fees from governmental bodies. Werkheiser, who was with the Washington office of the Piper Rudnick law firm when the suit began, had submitted a request for $665,000 with Bozonelis in September. He also met with Mayor Weiner and Township Manager Don Teolis over dinner in Warwick, N.Y. and offered to settle for a flat $75,000 from the township. Werkheiser confirmed that number. The town council refused the offer, feeling it was excessive. Any money paid to Werkheiser's firm would come from the township's general fund. It is not covered by liability insurance. Some three weeks ago, Bozonelis ruled that Piper Rudnick and Werkheiser's current firm, Womble Caryle, could not recover all their fees for the legal work they did in representing the Lenape before various state and federal agencies in pursuing the historic designation they eventually won for the tract. Only work done relating to the original injunction applied, the judge ruled. At the time, Bozonelis listened to arguments from both Werkheiser and Vernon Township Attorney Joseph Ragno. The former submitted invoices for some $200,000 in fees for the 46 days during which the injunction was argued. Ragno, whose fees are covered under his annual retainer with the township, said that he worked 59.25 hours on the case. Bozonelis was the sole arbiter of what reasonable fees should be, and Tuesday he informed Ragno that he had settled on $25,000. "Plaintiff's counsel submission of over 500 hours of time represents some three months of work at 40 hours per week," wrote the judge, "and is excessive for the period of May 21, 2001 to July 6, 2001 and not reasonably related to services necessary to obtain the injunction . . .The court will allow 100 hours at $250 an hour." "The judge obviously carefully reviewed the submission of the plaintiffs and awarded what he saw as a reasonable attorney fee for the effort that was expended," said Ragno. "I've said all along that their claim was excessive and represented nothing more than a shakedown of Vernon Township residents," said councilman Desmond when he learned of the decision. Former Mayor John Logan, who was in office when the case was argued, said, "My opinion is they had a selfish and dishonest agenda all along and the judge saw through it." "We're not going to dignify that with a response," said Werkheiser when told of Logan's and Desmond's comments. As for his decision to appeal, Werkheiser said, "It would be inappropriate to say anything else before we file the papers." The appeal, Werkheiser said, will be filed with the Appellate Division of N.J. Superior Court.