Judge: State must pay $4.9 million in legal fees tied to Eldora ‘torture’ case

A western Iowa case illustrates how an accused environmental scofflaw can, according to the state, openly and repeatedly disregard regulations on both the storage and the disposal of solid waste in Iowa. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere.com)

Iowa taxpayers will have to pay almost $5 million in legal expenses tied to the “torture” and abuse of children housed at the state-run Boys State Training School in Eldora.

U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose has ruled that the various advocacy groups that sued the state over conditions in the home are entitled to collect $4,931,126 from the state. That amount represents compensation for $4,540,763 in attorneys’ fees, plus $390,363 in related legal expenses.

In March 2020, Rose held the state liable for violating the constitutional rights of children at the school, which houses troubled youth ordered there by the courts. She also ordered that a monitor be appointed to oversee a broad array of court-ordered comprehensive reforms at the school.

In her decision, the judge said the school, run by the Iowa Department of Human Services, violated the U.S. Constitution by providing inadequate mental health care, misusing solitary confinement, and using what she called a “torture” device — a restraint known as the “wrap,” which holds children immobile.

That decision followed more than two years of litigation in which DHS steadfastly denied wrongdoing. Following Rose’s decision, the plaintiffs in the case asked the court to order the state to pay for $4.9 million in legal costs.

The state opposed that request, arguing that the plaintiffs prevailed in court on only some of their claims, not all of them, and that the fees were excessive or included unrecoverable expenses. The state sought an 87% reduction in the requested fees.

Although the plaintiffs’ legal fees are based on the relatively low hourly rates mandated by the Prison Reform Litigation Act, and are significantly less than the hourly rates charged by most attorneys in private practice, the plaintiffs invested thousands of hours in the case.

“This was a highly complex, difficult case, involving an extraordinarily large number of documents, which was fiercely defended by the office of the Iowa Attorney General,” the plaintiffs argued in their motion for payment of expenses.

In her ruling, Judge Rose sided with the plaintiffs, approving all but $10,000 of the $4.9 million they sought.

Rose ruled that while the plaintiffs did not prevail on every single claim, all of the claims were inextricably intertwined with a common set of facts and were based on the same related legal theories. She noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has been clear that a request for attorneys’ fees “should not result in a second major litigation” that would cause an infinite feedback loop of litigation that seeks fees for each previous round of legal work.

“The state fought this litigation and opposed the requested relief every step of the way,” the plaintiffs stated in court filings, arguing that resistance is responsible for the size of the expenses.

In her ruling, Rose noted that the state’s lawyers produced 860,000 pages of documents in the case, but turned them over in a manner that was “disorganized and often lacking identification or other data that would assist the collating of such a large amount of documents.”

Lynn Hicks, spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, declined to comment on the ruling.

The $4.9 million in plaintiffs’ fees and expenses is entirely separate from whatever costs the state has incurred in defending the case. In her ruling, Judge Rose noted that with regard to the 21 depositions in the case, “attorneys from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office outnumbered plaintiffs’ counsel at six of them.”

Of the $4.5 million in the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees, $2.5 million is tied to the work of the nonprofit Children’s Rights Inc.; $1.5 million is related to the work of the law firm Ropes & Gray; and roughly $500,000 is tied to the work of Disability Rights Iowa, the congressionally chartered organization that advocates for people with disabilities in Iowa.

In her March 30 decision, Judge Rose wrote that the school’s use of certain physical restraints “shocks the conscience,” adding that she was particularly disturbed by the state’s “deliberate indifference” to the obvious risks posed by the devices.

She said the fact that the Iowa Department of Human Services, the same state agency that is responsible for protecting Iowa children from abuse, would “revictimize already vulnerable, typically mentally ill, children entrusted to their care is disturbing to the court at a level that is nearly indescribable.”

The judge cited “overwhelming evidence showing the school frequently punishes or tortures students through these (restraint devices) for behavior not meeting such conditions.”