Charges from an Atlanta law firm to the Hamilton County Schools in an autism case include a number of meetings with experts in Los Angeles, New York City, Bozemont, Mt., and elsewhere involving expensive travel and hotel bills. The experts are getting fees as high as $350 an hour.
Attorney Charlie Weatherly billed the county for several nights in a $459 room with views of the Pacific Ocean at the Fairmont Miramar in Santa Monica and stayed several times at the New York Marriott - Marquis.
Attorney Weatherly has charged the county schools some $1.7 million thus far, including his travel and his $275 hourly rate. The cost of the experts has added more than $600,000 to the bill. And the case is ongoing.
Gary Mayerson, attorney for the Deal family that brought the lawsuit, said, “I can’t believe that the powers that be in Hamilton County let these kind of expenses mount. Somebody was asleep at the wheel. It’s just shameful.”
He added, “What they paid just one of their experts is far more than we asked for them to fund for this poor kid.”
County school officials say it is important to defend the case because it would set an expensive precedent if the Deal family prevails. County School Board member Joe Conner said it could mean up to $11 million in costs for the county schools to have to provide similar programs for other special education children. Attorney Mayerson said the Deals had asked for a 2-year intervention program that would cost less than $100,000. He said his charges to the family are a small portion of the amount the county has paid for legal bills. He said he knows of no other similar claims that have been filed with the county schools by parents of special education children. He said, “Where is this $11 million threat?”
Supt. Jesse Register said Friday afternoon, "Since the beginning of this case, the school system has complied with the current Supreme Court standard that says school systems have to provide a reasonable and adequate education to children with special needs. The school system has worked very hard to provide teachers and staff with specialized training and professional development to ensure students with special needs have an effective individual education plan that blends well within the context of our public schools, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and budget.
"Unfortunately, the Deal family disagreed and chose to file a lawsuit against the school system. The school system was left with no option but to defend itself in court. Contrary to what attorney Gary Mayerson stated, if the school system lost or settled this case, a new national precedent will be set on how schools educate children with special education needs. In his ruling, Judge R. Allen Edgar agreed with the school system, but the Deal family chose to appeal his decision to the Sixth Circuit Court, which overturned certain parts of the decision.
"The financial impact of this decision is staggering and could cost school systems locally and across the nation millions of dollars.
"The Hamilton County Board of Education continues to evaluate the case as it proceeds."
In response to comments by attorney Mayerson, Dr. Register said, "When the school system hired attorney Charlie Weatherly, he brought in several nationally-recognized experts on educating children with special needs. These experts reviewed and examined our special education program and said the school system has our special education program and said the school system has complied with the current Supreme Court precedent.
"In addition, these experts made several system-wide recommendations that the school system implemented to improve its special education program."
The latest ruling in the case is from the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals – in favor of the Deals.
A review of the records shows that attorney Weatherly first began billing the county schools in November 2001 when he and associate Kathleen Sullivan drove up from Atlanta for a dinner meeting with Irise Chapman and Jane Dixon at the Back Inn Café at Bluff View.
Attorney Weatherly went into full swing the following September defending the county. He and associate Jennifer Fain flew out to the West Coast “to meet with experts” he regularly uses in handling special education cases around the country.
Their plane tickets to San Francisco were $1,044 each, and it was another $165 each to fly on to Los Angeles. They stayed at the Fairmont Miramar at rates of $312.62 each. Breakfast for two charged to the county schools was $51.53. Ms. Fain stayed in California, but attorney Weatherly flew back to Atlanta. Then he bought another ticket to LA at $1,161 and flew right back to the West Coast. Ms. Fain had another airplane fare – from LA to San Francisco – for $163.50. Total bill to the county for the California excursion was $4,655.48.
Later in the month, attorney Weatherly and Ms. Sullivan went to Columbus, Ohio, on the Deal case. Their rooms at the Hyatt Recency were $184 each, and an in-room dinner was $52. Airfare for Ms. Sullivan was $970 for that trip.
Then in October 2002, Ms. Sullivan went to New York on the case, costing $1,082.
Dr. Betty Jo Freeman, a professor of medical psychology at the UCLA School of Medicine, was flown into Chattanooga. Her plane trip from California cost $1,284. Two nights at the Chattanoogan hotel were $242.
That same month, attorney Weatherly and Ms. Fain had billings for a trip to New York City. Plane fare for Ms. Fain was $346.50. They stayed two nights at the New York Marriott in $295 rooms. One of their dinners was $79.78. Cost of that trip was $1,855.
In late October, there was another trip to California by attorney Weatherly and Ms. Fain that was billed to the county schools. They stayed at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza at Thousand Oaks, Cal., at $218 each on the night of the 29th. Attorney Weatherly was in a $469 room at the Fairmont Marimont the next two nights. Ms. Fain stayed there the night of the 31st at $256. The plane tickets were $2,052 each.
Attorney Weatherly and Ms. Fain had a Knoxville trip a few days later. They flew from Atlanta – at $816 each. Their hotel bills were $102 each.
There was another New York City trip billed to the Hamilton County Schools later in September 2002 at $406 for the plane tickets. They went back to New York in early December – with the airfare at $416 each. Their hotel rooms at the Radisson Lexington Hotel were $403 apiece.
Attorney Mayerson said the New York City trips were to take depositions from experts. He said, “The county lawyers got permission from the court to fly around the country and add to their discovery. We mainly stayed out of that phase or it would have bankrupted us. We didn’t have a school system to fund us.”
A week later it was arranged for the Atlanta attorneys to fly to Bozeman, Mont., for a session with the experts, who flew there also at the expense of Hamilton County taxpayers. The tickets for attorney Weatherly and Ms. Fain were $1,035 each. It cost county taxpayers $1,191 to fly Dr. Freeman there from California. A dinner for the two lawyers, Dr. Freeman, Dr. Ron Leaf and Mitch Taubman was $214.
Dr. Freeman flew into Atlanta during the Christmas holidays of 2002. Her bill for five nights at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead was $3,486.12, though she did not charge Hamilton County all of that. She charged the county $100 per night on her room that was over $600 a night counting taxes. County taxpayers paid her air fare of $373, her taxi bill of $72 and her parking fee of $68.
Dr. Freeman had a bill for work from Nov. 5 to the end of the year of $77,400 for 258 hours at $300 an hour.
In early January 2003, attorney Weatherly and Ms. Fain made another New York City trip with charges to Hamilton County Schools. They had $456 plane fares and each had $237 rooms at the New York Marriott. A long distance telephone bill for the “telephone deposition of Mr. Deal” was $235.20.
Gina Farley of the Weatherly team came up to Chattanooga on Jan. 19, 2003, and her hotel room was $154 a night for six nights at the Marriott. She charged $93.16 for mileage each way between Chattanooga and Atlanta. Groceries for the litigation team were $75.64. Jennifer Fain and attorney Weatherly spent five nights each and Kathleen Sullivan four nights in the $154 rooms. A room was reserved for the litigation team for five nights at a cost to the county schools of $115 per night.
Attorney Mayerson said he stayed at the Holiday Inn Express during the trial.
The Behavior Therapy & Learning Center of Seal Beach, Calif. (Dr. Leaf) billed the county schools $81,900 just for its December 2002 work. The bill lists 16 hours ($5,600) one day and 17 hours ($5,950) the next. The Leaf bill for December also included $357.50 for air fare, $595 for a rental car, $74 for supplies, $126 for “a limo,” $42 for gas, $53 for restaurants and $194 for food. The “grand total” was $83,383.87.
For her work Jan. 1-24 during the time the trial was going on, Dr. Freeman sent a bill for $45,900 - $300 an hour for 156 hours. She also had a $1,517 plane bill, $168 for a night at the Marriott and $197 for parking at the LA Airport.
In June 2003, Dr. Freeman flew back in. Her plane fare was $469 and the hotel bill was $538. The rental car cost $210.
Last August, the Weatherly team went to Cincinnati for the oral arguments before the Sixth Circuit judges. During the three-day stay, lodging at the Hyatt Regency for attorney Weatherly was $700 and for Kathleen Sullivan was $520. The plane trip for Ms. Sullivan cost $1,086 and for attorney Weatherly, $797. The costs for that trip added up to $3,740.
Charlie Weatherly and the Hamilton County Schools are asking that the Sixth Circuit reconsider its unanimous three-judge ruling, and there is discussion of taking it on to the United States Supreme Court.