- Associated Press - Thursday, October 29, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A federal judge has awarded legal fees to a national gay rights group that sued North Dakota on behalf of a same-sex couple, though he criticized attorneys who worked on the case.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson awarded $57,351 to Lambda Legal and Minneapolis-based Faegre Baker Daniels law firm, less than half of the $124,000 they had sought.

Erickson said in his ruling, which was filed Wednesday, that the hourly rate requested for attorneys who worked on the case was too high and that some work duplicated that of other attorneys.

“Moreover, the hours billed by the attorneys reflect an excessive amount of time spent on simple issues such as an extension of a deadline or to request a stay be lifted,” Erickson wrote.

Karen Loewy, an attorney for Lambda Legal, said she believes the ruling fails to recognize legal challenges that are unique to North Dakota and that it may make private-practice lawyers more reluctant to take on future civil rights cases.

“The fees are certainly not our primary focus in taking on a case like this - we do not charge our clients - but the availability of fees is an important part of the system for enforcing civil rights,” Loewy said in a statement.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the state was obligated by law to pay attorney fees but thought the request was excessive “and the judge agreed.”

Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in June 2014 on behalf of Fargo couple Jan Jorgensen and Cindy Phillips. The couple married in Minnesota and sued North Dakota because the state wouldn’t recognize their marriage.

North Dakota’s constitutional ban on gay marriage was rendered moot when the U.S. Supreme Court in June declared same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide.

In August, North Dakota settled with attorneys who represented seven same-sex couples who sued the state in a separate lawsuit, agreeing to pay $58,000 in legal fees and costs.

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