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Town Calls Airport Plaintiffs' $295K Legal Bills ‘Excessive’

Thu, 07/27/2023 - 09:49
Durell Godfrey

Attorneys for the plaintiffs who have successfully thwarted East Hampton Town’s plan to briefly close East Hampton Airport and reopen it as a private airport have told the New York State Supreme Court that they calculated nearly $295,000 in fees associated with a May motion holding the town in civil contempt, fees the judge in the suit had ordered the town to pay.

Attorneys representing the town submitted a memorandum opposing those fees last week, saying that the court should reject all three.

Justice Paul Baisley Jr. held the town in civil contempt on May 19 for violating the temporary restraining order he had issued a year earlier enjoining the town from effectively converting the public airport to a private one or imposing restrictions on flights. In coordination with outside counsel, the town had planned to implement the changes to address residents’ complaints about air traffic, particularly helicopters and jets, over their residences.

Justice Baisley had also ruled in May that the town must pay the plaintiffs — Blade Air Mobility, East End Hangars, and the Coalition to Keep East Hampton Airport Open, as well as several individuals acting as co-plaintiffs with those entities — $250,000. He imposed a fine of $1,000 per day “for each day [the town] fails to comply with the T.R.O.” as of May 19 in addition to the attorneys’ fees for costs associated with the contempt motion.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys have since submitted affirmations and exhibits supporting their fees.

On June 30, James Catterson, a partner with the Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman law firm, which is representing East End Hangars, told the court that for his own services, the fee is $1,350 per hour; for Brianna Walsh, a senior associate, the firm bills $980 per hour, and for Danielle Stefanucci, an associate, $710 per hour.

After imposition of the restraining order on May 16, 2022, the town “deliberately violated” it, Mr. Catterson wrote, “by implementing and enforcing new use restriction and various ‘rules and regulations for East Hampton Airport,’ as well as misappropriating airport funds.” The plaintiffs previously complained that the town violated the order “by enforcing several of the ‘new use restrictions’ “ and that it is enforcing “proposed new rules and regulations” for the airport, requiring “planes and helicopters to power down completely before loading and unloading passengers and cargo resulting in cooling down periods of up to 20-30 minutes before reignition can take place which effectively doubles the amount of time that aircraft must remain grounded between flights.”

The plaintiffs also maintained that the town is “compelling aircraft operators to meet new indemnification and insurance requirements covering the town in order to receive access to special flight instrument landing procedures,” effectively making it more expensive to use the airport. Justice Baisley agreed, holding the town in civil contempt on May 19.

Due to the town’s “flagrant disregard for Court orders,” Mr. Catterson wrote on June 30, plaintiffs’ attorneys “have needed to expend significant time and energy to redress these violations. Moreover, significant effort and skill was required to address the numerous, technically complex violations of this Court’s lawful orders,” which necessitated a motion for contempt. Pillsbury’s rates, he added, “are in line with other large law firms in the New York metropolitan area.”

Before entering private practice, Mr. Catterson was an elected justice of the State Supreme Court, including 10 years on the Appellate Division, First Department.

Also on June 30, Randy Mastro, an attorney representing Blade Air Mobility, said in his affirmation that 10 attorneys worked at rates between approximately $700 and approximately $1,800 per hour for a total of almost 140 hours. He cited the “lengthy contempt briefing, working on evidence, analyzing the other parties’ contempt briefing and evidence, coordinating with other petitioners on contempt issues, preparing for the potential hearing, and overall developing of the meritorious arguments that proved the respondents were in violation of the Court’s T.R.O.”

In his affirmation, Brian Doyle of the Greenberg Traurig firm, representing the Coalition to Keep the East Hampton Airport Open, said that his firm used a “blended rate” of $750 per hour in billing its clients for time spent by four attorneys, himself included. Like Mr. Catterson, he called the amount of $20,100 reasonable and arrived at after consideration of customary fees for similar services, the complexity of the pertinent issues, the attorneys’ skills, and the results obtained.

In response, John Henry and Christopher McDonald of the Whiteman Osterman & Hanna law firm, outside counsel for the town, submitted a July 19 memorandum in opposition to Mr. Catterson’s affirmation. The bill for the East End Hangars attorneys’ fees totals $157,618 based on 163.7 hours, they noted. “The Blade petitioners request an award of $116,621.50 for an unspecified amount of time billed at unidentified rates ranging from ‘approximately $700 per hour to approximately $1,800 per hour,’ “ they wrote, and the Coalition to Keep East Hampton Airport Open’s attorneys seek $20,100 for 26.8 hours of time.

The court should reject all three, the attorneys wrote. The Blade fee application “should be rejected out of hand because its conclusory assertions and complete lack of factual detail do not come close to satisfying the well-settled requirements for establishing the reasonableness of claimed attorney’s fees. . . . There is no possible basis upon which $116,621.50 in legal fees, representing 140 hours billed by ten attorneys, billing at rates ranging from ‘approximately’ $700 to $1,800 per hour, can be deemed reasonable in connection with this single set of contempt motion papers.”

While the East End Hangars application provides information, they wrote, that information “demonstrates beyond question that the fees sought are excessive and unreasonable, both as to the hourly rates charged and the hours billed,” citing the hourly fees Mr. Catterson referenced in his affirmation. The Coalition to Keep East Hampton Airport Open’s fee application “should be denied because the underlying finding of civil contempt — which the town is appealing to the Second Department — was erroneous,” they wrote.

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