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New Mexico ordered to pay $117K in legal expenses in education suit

May 3, 2019

A state judge on Thursday ordered the state to pay nearly $117,000 in reimbursement for legal expenses to one group of plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit accusing New Mexico officials of failing to provide an equal education to all public school students.

First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton ruled last summer in the case, Yazzie-Martinez v. State of New Mexico, that the state must do more to meet its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to low-income kids and other vulnerable students. The decision led to an overhaul in how the governor and lawmakers fund the K-12 education system and a surge of new money for schools.

Now, the lead plaintiffs in the case are seeking compensation for some of their costs to bring the suit — not including attorneys fees.

In late March, they requested about $450,000 from the state for legal expenses — $118,006 for plaintiff Wilhelmina Yazzie and $331,418 for plaintiff Louise Martinez — to pay for expert witnesses’ travel and hotel fares, depositions, printing and copying of documents, and calls made by attorneys.

Initially, lawyers for the state countered that some of the costs included in the plaintiffs’ $450,000 request seemed excessive or unnecessary.

Singleton on Thursday issued an order for the state to pay the Yazzie plaintiffs $116,857.81. She has not yet issued a decision on reimbursements for the Martinez plaintiffs.

“All of the $116,000 is costs that were already paid by the [New Mexico] Center on Law and Poverty out of its own funds,” said Daniel Yohalem, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. He was referring to a nonprofit legal organization that also helped bring the case against the state.

“Not a dime is going to pay any attorneys,” Yohalem added.

He and other attorneys representing both Yazzie and Martinez have said their work on the lawsuit was pro bono.

“I think its important for people to understand that, at least in the case of the plaintiffs,” he said, “nobody is collecting attorney’s fees.”

In contrast, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office told The New Mexican last month that the state, which was represented by law firms Montgomery & Andrews in Santa Fe and Stinson Leonard Street in St. Louis, spent $5.9 million fighting the suit.

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