Judge absolves plaintiffs of Watkins legal fees

KU wanted former scholarship students to pay for repair lawsuit attorney expenses

Former Kansas University students who sued the university over repairs at their scholarship halls will not be required to pay their opponents’ attorney fees in the case, a judge has ruled.

Douglas County District Court Judge Jack Murphy ruled that Bank of America, which administers a trust fund for the halls left by Elizabeth Miller Watkins, will recoup only a portion of its attorney fees, and that the money must come from the trust fund and not from the former students.

“I’d call it a complete victory for my clients,” said David Brown, the Lawrence attorney representing the students.

The former students, then residents of Miller and Watkins scholarship halls, sued the university and Bank of America in 2001, saying money from the trust fund wasn’t being spent on upkeep of the halls.

Both sides have claimed victory in the case — the students, because the university has begun spending all money generated by the trust each year, and the bank and university, because the students eventually dropped the case after the changes were made.

Settling attorney fees was the final legal issue remaining in the case.

Under Murphy’s ruling, Bank of America will receive $80,000 in attorney fees incurred during the three-year court battle. The bank had asked for $273,500 in attorney fees, but Murphy said that amount was “excessive and unreasonable.” He settled on $80,000, he said, because that was similar to the amount paid by the students for their attorneys.

He also said it was difficult to say which side won the case, and winning sides typically don’t pay their opponents’ legal fees.

KU officials had asked that the attorney fees come from the students and their attorneys. Depleting the trust fund, they argued, would lead them to increase rents at the halls.

Lynn Bretz, a KU spokeswoman, said it was too early to determine how much rents would increase as a result of the ruling.

“We are glad that the litigation is over,” Bretz said. “Unfortunately, the cost of defending against the unsupported claims from petitioners who initiated the suit will fall on future residents of Miller and Watkins scholarship halls.”

The university already has raised rates at the halls and has proposed another increase to create a reserve fund for major repairs. Previously, such a reserve fund came from the trust fund, university officials have said.

KU did not ask for its attorney fees to be recouped.

Steven Mauer, an attorney for Bank of America, said Thursday he hadn’t yet reviewed the ruling. But he said he wanted to make it clear the bank was not seeking compensation from the former students.

“We never asked for the students to have to pay anything,” he said.

Lindsay Poe, one of 26 women who filed the lawsuit, said the students had been concerned because few — if any — had the money to pay the bank’s attorney fees.

“This is definitely a good way to end the suit,” she said. “It’s a big relief.”