(CN) - The government owes $450,000 to the attorneys who forced it to make unused property available to the homeless, a federal judge ruled.
Under the Stewart B. McKinnley Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, government agencies must determine which of their properties are "excess," "surplus," "unutilized" or "underutilized," and then determine if any of them would be "suitable" for use by the homeless.
A year after the bill passed, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty sued the government for alleged noncompliance. It won an injunction imposing stricter requirements than those mandated by law, and the court has since modified and updated that order, most recently in 1993.
The order now overlaps substantially with the law.
Two decades later, various government agencies asked the court to vacate the 1993 order based on "changed circumstances."
Chief U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington, D.C., denied that request in March, and instead expanded the order to combat "landbanking" - or hiding potentially eligible properties by keeping them off the books.
The agencies argued that the practice of landbanking falls under agency discretion and is thus "irrelevant to the court's task of assessing whether defendants have demonstrated compliance," but Lamberth disagreed.
He ordered agencies to annually compare properties reported under the McKinnley Act against a database of federal properties to close the gulf between properties reported and properties actually available.
On Wednesday, Lamberth granted the nonprofit plaintiff $450,329 in attorneys' fees for its role in the litigation, or 87.5 percent of the award it requested.
In doing so, he disagreed with arguments from the defendant agencies "that landholding decisions are irrelevant to compliance with the McKinney Act and the 1993 Order thwarts the purpose of both, which is to make facilities available to the homeless."
The plaintiff can recover attorneys' fees because the agencies' position was not "substantially justifiable," according to the ruling.
While Lamberth rejected the government's argument that the law center overstaffed the case, and billed for unnecessary meetings and clerical tasks, he found that the center's fee request was "rife with block-billed entries."
"While the court may estimate that the large number of hours logged in this case is reasonable, it cannot be sure with a high degree of certainty, in part because of the numerous block-billed entries," Lamberth wrote.
He also found that many entries lack an adequate description of the billed task.
The judge applied a 12.5 percent across-the-board reduction for these errors that prevented the court from determining the reasonableness of the fee request.
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