Attorneys for a Minneapolis woman who won $270,000 in a wage discrimination lawsuit against the government of Norway last month are seeking $2.3 million in legal fees and costs.
If U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson orders Norway to foot the bill, it would be among the biggest payouts for legal fees for a single claimant in a discrimination case in Minnesota history, said employment attorney Marshall Tanick, who has handled hundreds of cases. "In 37 years, I am not aware of a larger one."
Judge Nelson ruled in December that Norway had violated Minnesota's discrimination and equal pay laws by paying Ellen Ewald, a former employee of its consulate, $30,000 less than a male employee.
Nelson concluded that their jobs were comparable and also ordered Norway to pay $1,000 to Minnesota's general fund for violating the state's Human Rights Act.
At trial, attorneys for Norway argued that Ewald's pay was appropriate for her responsibilities as education coordinator. They said the two jobs were not comparable.
In court filings this week, Sheila Engelmeier, Ewald's lead attorney, wrote that her law office spent 6,521 hours on the case, covering the work of four lawyers and four paralegals.
"It is a tremendous amount in attorneys' fees, but it is not one penny more than what was needed to hold Norway accountable," Engelmeier said in an interview.
She stated in court documents that she racked up 920.7 hours of work at a rate that started at $390 an hour in 2010 and rose over the five-year period to $410 an hour, which she wrote was a discount.
"For a person of her experience and caliber, [$410] is in the mainstream of the rates charged and may be on the low side," Tanick said.
Given the number of hours involved, $2.3 million is "not outrageous," said Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at the Hamline University School of Law. In fact, he said, for Norway it might be "a pretty good deal."
Dan Wilczek, the Minneapolis attorney representing Norway, did not return phone calls or an e-mail seeking comment. Norway has 20 days to respond to Engelmeier in court; then she has an opportunity to reply, which will be followed by an oral hearing before Judge Nelson, she said.
In a 36-page affidavit to Nelson, Engelmeier contended that the Norwegian government stonewalled her law firm, withheld information, blocked access to witnesses and submitted 90,000 pages of documents, much of which contained no useful information, but all of which had to be read because the documents were unsearchable by computer,
"Some of the documents were nonsense, others mysteriously redacted, many were in Norwegian without translations and none of the information was referenced in any manner that would indicate on what issue it was relevant," she wrote.
She said one key witness for Norway disposed of the only cellphone that would have contained important text messages.
Ewald paid Engelmeier's firm $851,000 in fees, but the legal bills continued to mount after that. Ewald still owes $771,000, and the firm is seeking that amount from the Norwegian government, plus $385,000, invoking case law that allows an incentive to lawyers to take such cases.
"It was very clear the way Norway ran this case that they were trying to make it too expensive for her to go to trial," Engelmeier said in the interview. "But we said we would continue to work and ask the court to force Norway to pay when we won."
Engelmeier wrote that the Norwegian authorities "repeatedly made factual assertions [in interrogatories, affidavits, correspondence, motions, at trial and in the media] that were untrue and inconsistent with the trial testimony."
Engelmeier observed that former Vice President Walter Mondale, who oversaw the Norwegian consulate in the Twin Cities, co-wrote a letter in 2009 to the Norwegian ambassador, saying that the pay disparity was unjust and that it should be fixed. But she said the ambassador never accepted the letter, and instead returned it.