$81K in legal fees awarded in lesbian prom case

Published 3:03 pm Thursday, October 28, 2010

A federal judge has ordered a Mississippi school district to pay $81,665 in legal fees and expenses in a lawsuit filed by a lesbian student whose prom was canceled because she wanted to bring her girlfriend to the dance.

Lawyers for the student deemed the ruling a victory, saying Tuesday that it serves as a warning to other school districts that discriminating against gay students can be costly.

Constance McMillen and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Itawamba County School District in March to challenge the ban on same-sex prom dates. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, also challenged a rule that prohibited female students from wearing tuxedos to the prom.

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The small, rural school district responded to the suit by canceling Itawamba Agricultural High School’s April 2 prom. Parents sponsored another dance, but McMillen claimed she was tricked into going to a “sham prom” and wasn’t invited to the private dance attended by most students.

U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson had already ruled that McMillen’s rights were violated. He signed an order Monday calling for the district to pay $67,265.50 in attorney’s fees and $14,400 in expenses.

“We are very satisfied with the amount,” ACLU attorney Christine P. Sun said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “This case was not about the money, but hopefully it will send a message to school districts that it’s not only wrong to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, but there are monetary consequences for doing so.”

McMillen had already been awarded $35,000 in the case. The school district was forced to implement a nondiscrimination policy dealing with gay students.

The legal fees will be split among six lawyers and a paralegal based on the number of hours they worked on the case. The attorneys fees range from $125 to $200 an hour. The paralegal was paid $95 an hour.

The school district’s lawyers had argued in court records that McMillen’s attorneys were seeking excessive fees. The district also asked the court to scrutinize McMillen’s lawyers’ time sheets, alleging they were claiming “excessive, redundant and duplicative hours.”

The court reduced the amount of billable hours that the school district was ordered to pay to by 10 percent to account for “travel time, redundant work and idle time in the courtroom.”

McMillen transferred to another school and graduated. She plans to study psychology at a Tennessee college. She has appeared on television shows and visited the White House as an invited guest after her case received nationwide attention.