Judge awards legal fees in Helmsley case

BY Advocate.com Editors

March 29 2003 12:00 AM ET

A New York judge on Thursday awarded more than $638,000 in legal fees and expenses to lawyers for a gay former hotel manager who successfully sued Leona Helmsley with the claim that she abused and fired him because of his sexual orientation. The amount was calculated by state supreme court justice Walter B. Tolub, to be paid to Geri Krauss and Elizabeth Holtzman, lawyers for Charles Bell. The sum is about one third of the $1.69 million that they had requested. The fees are also more than the $554,000 Tolub awarded Bell, 48, after reducing the $11.17 million a Manhattan jury awarded the former Park Lane Hotel manager on February 4 after finding that Helmsley, 82, had wrongfully terminated him. The judge noted that Bell and his lawyers have a "contingency" fee agreement, by which they get one third of whatever the jury awards him. That means Bell's lawyers would get another $185,000 in addition to the $638,000, for a total of $823,000.

Helmsley's lawyer, Steven G. Eckhaus, said he was "gratified" that the judge gave Bell's attorneys only about one third of what they requested, "but I don't believe they'll get any of it." Only the side that wins in a lawsuit gets legal fees, Eckhaus noted, and he said Helmsley intends to appeal. "At the end of the day, when the appeals are finished, they won't see a penny," he said.

Krauss said she and Holtzman were glad Tolub awarded them what he deemed to be the top fee for experienced lawyers in an important civil rights case. "Unfortunately," Krauss complained, "the judge did not give enough weight to the amount of time we were forced to spend dealing with defendants' repeated refusal to follow [pretrial] rules and...capricious and repeated changes of counsel."

Krauss said Helmsley used five different law firms during the Bell case. "We're going to appeal this along with our appeal of the judge's severe reduction of the jury's damages award," Krauss said. "We're very eager to have our $11 million verdict reinstated."

Exactly a month after the jury awarded Bell $1.17 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages, Tolub issued a decision calling the award excessive, despite his estimate of Helmsley's financial worth at close to $4 billion. The judge said the amount awarded Bell probably resulted from Helmsley's "belligerence" on the witness stand and "accompanying sneer," which annoyed the jury and succeeded "in keeping the specter of the 'queen of mean' alive in the courtroom."

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