Baltimore County shelled out as much as $42,000 for a $350-an-hour Florida lawyer to appeal a long-running pension dispute to the Supreme Court. It lost, and now the county may be on the hook for millions of dollars.
While Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Democrat from Reisterstown, said she thought hiring outside lawyers was a good idea at the time, "now I'm not so sure it was the right thing to do."
Since the late 1990s, the county government has tangled with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the county's pension plan, which the agency said discriminated because it charged older workers more to be in the plan until 2007.
By declining to hear the county's appeal on Nov. 3, the Supreme Court let stand an earlier ruling that the plan was discriminatory. Now it's up to a federal court in Baltimore to determine how much some pension plan members are owed.
To take the case to the Supreme Court, the county hired Robert Klausner of Klausner, Kaufman, Jensen & Levinson of Plantation, Fla.
When the county's administration asked members of the Baltimore County Council to approve the contract in July, it said Klausner is "a renowned expert on the issue of age discrimination in employee benefits."
He represented the state of Kentucky in a successful case against the EEOC that went to the Supreme Court in 2008, and County Attorney Mike Field said Klausner's experience would benefit the county.
"After much review and discussion, it was determined that, against a potential liability of between $17 million and $19 million, the proposed fee was well worth the expense," Field wrote to council members in July.
Under the contract approved by the council 6-0 on July 7, Klausner was paid $350 per hour for up to 120 hours to write the brief to the Supreme Court, for a maximum payment of $42,000.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said "of course" it was worth spending the money to fight the case, given that millions of dollars are at stake.
"I'm sure it was worth the battle," he said.
It could take years to figure out how much money is owed and who should pay — county taxpayers, pension plan members who underpaid or a consulting firm that advised the county on the pension plan.
Now that the case is back in a lower court, the county plans to use its in-house legal team moving forward.