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Lawyers argue for their $26-million fee

To Raymond Ehrlich, Jacksonville lawyer and former Florida Supreme Court justice, a $26-million fee for lawyers winning $188-million in state refunds on automotive impact fees is reasonable.

Ehrlich was joined Thursday by the president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, a former North Carolina judge, a former Florida Bar official and a tax-law expert in telling a judge the lawyers deserved at least that much for their successful class-action, constitutional challenge of a Florida law.

However, the state argues the proposed legal fees amount to an excessive $4,400 an hour.

The lawsuit by Foley & Lardner of Orlando and Winston & Strawn of Chicago invalidated a statute that charged some 630,000 newcomers to the state $295 each to register an out-of-state vehicle.

The period in question was from July 1991 until September 1994.

Under the lawyers' compensation claim _ to be ruled on next week by Circuit Judge Lawrence Kirkwood _ each person requesting a refund would get back the $295 payment minus $44.25 for the lawyers' fees.

Kirkwood ruled in December 1993 the law was unconstitutional because it discriminated against new residents to the state. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the ruling in September.

The lawyers want 14 percent of the total recovery.

"It was all or nothing" for the lawyers, Ehrlich testified before Kirkwood in Orlando. "They did a lot of work on it, took a lot of risk, so I don't think 14 percent was unreasonable."

Ehrlich noted his current law firm, Holland & Knight, had turned down the class-action case as too risky.

Chris Kay, the lead attorney on the case from the Orlando firm, noted not one resident showed up to protest the proposed lawyers' fees. He said this indicated those receiving refunds felt they were "well-served" by the lawyers.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Taylor said even though it lost the case, the state now had a duty to represent the people getting refunds.

"We have to help determine a reasonable fee" so those getting refunds will not have to pay legal costs that are the equivalent of $4,400 an hour, Taylor argued.

The state lawyer suggested there was a duplication of time sheets submitted by lawyers of the two firms.

He argued in some complex, large-award cases _ such as the Agent Orange toxic defoliant case resulting from the Vietnam War _ lawyers have collected fees of only 5 percent of the total award or less.

_ The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles' toll-free number for handling calls about the impact fee is (800) 299-8247.