Attorney takes Superior Court to court over unpaid legal bills
Published: February 26, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - A St. Croix attorney is urging the territory's highest court to force the V.I. government to pay her for her work on court-appointed cases dating back to 2008.
Amelia Joseph filed a petition Friday asking the V.I. Supreme Court to issue a writ of mandamus ordering the V.I. Superior Court to immediately pay the outstanding vouchers for Joseph's court-appointed cases.
In the petition, Joseph argues the V.I. government owes her $8,365 for her work on two court-appointed cases, defending Michael Othello in a 2010 case and defending N'Fari Benjamin in a 2008 case.
Joseph said she submitted vouchers for the Othello case in December 2012 and in the Benjamin case on Jan. 8 of this year. Presiding Superior Court Judge Darryl Donohue Sr. approved both in mid-January, according to documents submitted with Joseph's petition.
Joseph says she still has not been paid.
"The petitioner represented both clients through a jury trial," Joseph wrote in the petition. "The trial was not piecemealed over a period of months, and the compensation should not be piecemealed over a period of months."
Joseph has argued in court filings that court-appointed cases make up 75 percent of her annual income. So the government's failure to pay her has created hardship in Joseph's professional and personal finances, placing her "in a financial position of despair," the petition states.
"The undersigned counsel, who is a single parent, cannot financially afford to wait for this case to be completed before submitting an invoice for the legal services rendered in the past year due to past due impending expenses, including but not limited to: the undersigned's daughter's Good Hope School's tuition; a WAPA power bill; the V.I. Bar fees; as well as household and office expenses," Joseph wrote in a Jan. 8 emergency motion.
The motion argued that Joseph has "always volunteered to take court appointed cases without hesitation," but that she "has expended all of her savings and must generate income immediately."
In the writ of mandamus petition, Joseph details a number of steps she has taken to try to get paid, including that she has been forced to repeatedly call, come into the Superior Court accounting office, file emergency motions and "basically beg and plead to obtain payment for court-appointed services rendered, which is demeaning."
Joseph states in the petition that she was directed to the office of Assistant Court Administrator Lisa Davis-McGregor on Thursday to inquire about the status of payment on the Othello and Benjamin cases.
Davis-McGregor "would not indicate when the petitioner would be paid," the petition states.
Reached Monday, Joseph expressed outrage over the government's delay in paying its bills.
"Some of these cases take two years, and then you can put the bill out and you've got to wait," she said.
Joseph's petition includes details about several outstanding bills - from rent and electricity at her office to continuing legal education required by the V.I. Bar Association and her daughter's tuition - that she says she cannot afford to pay until the government pays her.
"I am desperate," she said. "I'm about to close my office."
The V.I. Code states that attorneys appointed to represent indigent defendants "may be allowed the necessary expenses, upon verified statements thereof being filed with the clerk of the court, and reasonable compensation for their services in carrying out their assignments. The amount of such compensation shall, in each case, be fixed by the court and such compensation and expenses shall be paid out of money appropriated for that purpose by law."
Attorneys are bound by court rules to accept such appointments or face disciplinary action. However, the government has struggled to pay these attorneys - and any experts or investigators they may hire to help their cases - in recent years.
St. Thomas attorney Russell Pate and Miami-based attorney Joseph DiRuzzo have argued in court documents that the government's failure to pay lawyers and experts for their work on these cases may violate their clients' Constitutional right to competent counsel. Both have also asserted that defense experts have refused to take V.I. cases because of the government's unwillingness or inability to pay its bills from indigent defendants' cases in a timely fashion.
The Bar Association's Ad Hoc Committee on Indigent Criminal Appointments has begun urging the Bar Association to reform its indigent defense system, according to Edward Barry, a St. Croix lawyer who is chairman of the committee.
The committee's most recent proposal calls for the creation of a panel of criminal defense attorneys willing to work serious felony cases; a pro bono panel of attorneys to offset some of the costs of the major felony panel; and a co-pay system under which quasi-indigent defendants could pay for some of their own legal fees.
Neither Donohue nor Bar Association President Ernest Morris Jr. have returned calls for recent articles about these issues.
Senate Vice President Sammuel Sanes, chairman of the 30th Legislature's Rules and Judiciary Committee, said the court's issue with paying lawyers and experts for indigent defendants is "a matter of the budget."
Sanes said a supplementary appropriation this fiscal year to help address the issue is a possibility, but he and other committee members are still trying to get a firm grasp on where the court system stands financially.
"I am going to look into it," Sanes said. "This is one important aspect of our society. We have to be able to have the best legal representation for our people. It is our duty."
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.