Abortion providers serving Wisconsin residents could recoup nearly $1.8 million in legal fees they amassed while fighting an anti-choice law that was first blocked in 2013. However, spokespeople for the State of Wisconsin have raised the possibility of an undisclosed settlement.
In a U.S. District Court filing dated July 28, the providers requested an award of “attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses” that could be recouped under the Civil Rights Attorneys’ Fee Awards Act of 1976. On Wednesday in response, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel asked the court to extend the due date for the state to respond from August 18 to September 1. The request was granted, according to court documents.
“The parties are currently discussing settlement of the plaintiffs’ motion. An extension of the briefing schedule would allow the parties the opportunity to explore the possibility of a settlement of this issue,” Schimel said in the court filing.
The providers seeking money include Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, Inc., Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Milwaukee Women’s Medical Services, which conducts business as Affiliated Medical Services. The sum requested includes $1.7 million in attorneys’ fees, $44,253 in billable costs and $22,545 in out-of-pocket expenses, according to the court filing.
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The providers amassed the fees fighting Wisconsin Act 37 of 2013, a Republican-initiated law that required doctors to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of the location where an abortion was to be performed.
U.S. District Judge William Conley of the Western District of Wisconsin blocked the law’s enforcement soon after Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed it in 2013.
The state attorney general twice appealed to the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s decision both times; the U.S. Supreme Court also declined to take the case a day after overturning a similar provision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
In a Court of Appeals opinion issued in November 2015, the court said there was no evidence that “transfer agreements provide inferior protection to the health of women undergoing abortion compared to admitting privileges.” The opinion concluded by saying the unconstitutional statute was burdensome and curtailed citizens’ constitutional right to an abortion.
“The statute may not be irrational, yet may still impose an undue burden—a burden excessive in relation to the aims of the statute and the benefits likely to be conferred by it— and if so it is unconstitutional,” the court said.
If not blocked, the law would have forced pregnant people in various parts of the state to travel at least an extra 200 miles round trip to access legal abortion, according to a previous Rewire report.
Johnny Koremenos, a spokesperson for Schimel, had indicated in statements to the Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal earlier this month that the state would fight the charges for legal fees. He said Schimel would challenge the providers’ request “to ensure that the state is not paying more than it should be for those fees,” according to local news reports.
Koremenos did not respond to Rewire’s request for comment.
Walker also supported fighting the fees, his spokesperson told the Journal Sentinel.
Ismael Ozanne, the district attorney for Dane County, was also named as a defendant in the providers’ lawsuit, along with several state medical examining board members.
Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin spokeswoman Iris Riis told Rewire the money Planned Parenthood is seeking in this case is only a recoup of the legal fees already spent fighting the unconstitutional admitting privileges law.
“There would not be any leftover money to allocate to services or any fund. It would just cover what was already spent. Governor Walker’s administration appealed multiple definitive rulings, wasting countless taxpayer dollars in the process. That action also drove up our legal costs,” Riis said.
Riis said the plaintiffs do not know when Conley will issue the ruling that will determine whether Schimel will have to compensate them for legal fees.
Andrew Wiseman, a deputy clerk in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin, told Rewire the court could not offer a prediction about the date of Conley’s ruling.
Affiliated Medical Services, which operates a clinic in Milwaukee, is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, while private attorneys are representing Planned Parenthood.