Judge orders City of Phila. to pay $877,000 in legal fees stemming from Boy Scouts discrimination suit

A long-term dispute between the City of Philadelphia and a local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America appears to have reached an end, after a federal judge this week ordered city officials to cough up $877,000 in legal fees for the firm that represented the Scouts in a case relating to eviction from a city-owned property.

In a March 21 order, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter also denied the city’s motion for a new trial in the case, which was initiated with a lawsuit filed by the Cradle of Liberty Council back in 2008.

According to plaintiff’s complaint, which had been handled by the Philadelphia firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP, the city evicted the Cradle of Liberty Council in 2007 from its headquarters at N. 22nd and Winter Streets in Center City, Philadelphia over the Scouts’ policy prohibiting gays from joining its ranks.

The eviction was approved with the passage of a City Council resolution.

The organization, which had occupied the property for 80 years, claimed the city, in issuing the eviction notice, was violating the group’s First Amendment right of expressive association, which protects the membership and leadership standards of the Boy Scouts of America and its local councils from governmental interference.

The lawsuit alleged that the city decided to punish the organization because of its refusal to admit gay members, and when the group refused to revise its policies toward homosexuals, it took punitive action against the group, namely by demanding that it vacate its long-time headquarters.

The city had argued that the Scouts’ exclusionary membership policies were in stark contrast to Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination policies.

Back in 2003, when the city discovered the Scouts’ policy toward openly gay young men, officials told the organization it could continue operating out of its headquarters rent-free, which it had done since 1929, if it changed its membership policy; it could keep its policy in tact and start paying $200,000 a year in rent; or it could vacate the building.

The organization decided to file suit instead.

The city filed a motion for judgment or for a new trial in July 2010 after a jury found in its favor on the viewpoint discrimination and equal protection claims, but found against the city on the unconstitutional claims, according to local news reports and court docket information.

After arguing that the verdict was inconsistent, the two sides entered into settlement negotiations, but no agreement was reached by December and the judge said he was finally able to rule on the city’s motion, according to a report in the Legal Intelligencer.

The Boy Scouts initially submitted a bill for attorney’s fees totaling $1,038,664.07, court docket information in the case shows, but that figure was later reduced after the city argued that the fees were unreasonable, and didn’t accurately reflect the hours worked by attorneys on the case.

In a memorandum accompanying his order, Buckwalter wrote that contrary to the defendant’s arguments, the court did not err in issuing its instructions and interrogatories to the jury, and that the jury’s verdict is not inconsistent.

“In the alternative, even if the verdict could be considered inconsistent, the record is replete with evidence to support a verdict in favor of Plaintiff on the unconstitutional conditions claims, and so a new trial is not warranted,” the ruling states.

The fact that the city was found to have committed constitutional violations against the group shows there is no “inherent unfairness in denying Defendant a new trial on this issue.”

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