Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, DLA Piper and environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity were among the top recipients in 2012 of attorney fees from the federal government, which last year shelled out more than $120 million in awards to private lawyers.

The expenditures are detailed in court records and payments from the Judgment Fund, a largely overlooked pocket of spending that covers the government’s court judgments and legal settlements.

The largest attorney fee payment by far — about $86 million — was shared by Kilpatrick and solo practitioners Dennis Gingold and Thaddeus Holt for their work on the Cobell v. Salazar class action, which was filed in 1996. U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan authorized legal fees of $99 million, but has withheld $13.6 million until claims by lawyers who worked on the case in its early years are resolved. The Native American Rights Fund says it deserves $8.1 million in fees, and Mark Kester Brown, a Los Angeles solo, claims he is owed $5.5 million. The dispute is in mediation.

Kilpatrick partner William Dorris, who along with partners Keith Harper, Elliott Levitas and David Smith played a central role in the case, declined comment about the firm’s fee award, citing the mediation.

The Cobell case was brought on behalf of 500,000 individual Indians, but several dozen tribes filed separate suits alleging trust-account mismanagement. According to court papers, the Native American Rights Fund earned $3 million in fees for a case on behalf of the Nez Perce Tribe that settled for $33.7 million, while Kilpatrick picked up another $1.425 million in fees for its work for the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Another major recipient of legal fees was DLA Piper’s Robert Brownlie and Ira Lechner of Katz & Ranzman, who were paid a combined $22 million in a class action settlement with the Department of Veterans Affairs. [See "For the government, Fair Labor Standards cases cost a bundle," Page 9.] Lechner got an additional $1.48 million in fees for a similar suit involving other V.A. workers that settled for just below $5 million.

Aside from the megapayments, the government spent about $16 million on attorney fees in 117 smaller cases. The awards were often based on environmental statutes such as the Endangered Species Act, which allows successful plaintiffs to recoup fees. The National Oceanic and Atmospher­ic Administration Fisheries Service, for example, paid $166,000 to the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which represented plaintiffs including the Center for Biological Diversity in a bid to protect loggerhead sea turtles, sea birds and humpback whales. The plaintiffs in 2009 challenged a government plan that would have almost tripled the number of turtles that could be killed incidentally by swordfish longline fishing vessels. The turtles get caught on bait hooks or tangled in fishing lines and drown. The settlement, according to court papers, amounted to "a return to the status quo ante." Earthjustice asked for more than $300,000 in legal fees but agreed to accept less.The Center for Biological Diversity has been a frequent participant in other Endangered Species Act cases, both as counsel or plaintiff. For example, the center’s lawyers were awarded $163,000 in fees for their work suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service in Arizona federal court, arguing that seven species including the Mexican spotted owl, the Chiricahua leopard frog and the loach minnow were not being properly protected.

The center last year was also awarded $170,000 in fees after suing the government over plans for four national forests in Southern California. Another case involved steelhead and bull trout in Oregon and included a fee award of $120,000.

Although fee awards in environmental challenges are commonplace, in other litigation they often indicate the government made significant missteps. For example, the Justice Department was ordered to pay attorney fees of $743,276 — almost all of it to New York City’s O’Shea Partners — after a case against a Long Island strip club went badly awry. The government seized $879,836 from the club’s bank accounts, alleging a pattern of cash deposits known as "structuring activity" designed to avoid the requirement to report cash transactions of more than $10,000.

But there was no evidence of money laundering or tax evasion, and U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan found that the club owner had "a credible and logical explanation for his banking activity." That is, the owner deposited $50 and $100 bills because they weren’t useful for the business, and used the $20 bills to supply the club’s on-site ATM. Counting the $20 deposits, the club consistently banked more than $10,000 per day.

In another case in Kentucky federal court, U.S. District Judge Jennifer Coffman awarded $1.53 million in fees and costs to plaintiffs lawyers from Sturgill, Turner, Barker & Moloney and Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs in a case brought by 98 employees of a federal prison. The employees alleged that their privacy was violated after a folder containing extensive personal information — their home addresses, Social Security numbers, salaries, birthdays — was left for hours in an area where inmates had access. Prison officials "went to great lengths to thwart the plaintiffs’ efforts to discover the extent of the security breach," the judge found, and later destroyed the file in question.

"Much of the complexity of this case is a direct result of the willful destruction of evidence by the defendants," Coffman wrote, and the "complexity of this case supports a higher reasonable rate."

Contact Jenna Greene at jgreene@alm.com.