Tuesday night, during another marathon session of Harris County Commissioners Court, Commissioners voted on party lines to appoint local attorney Christopher Hollins as interim county clerk. Hollins will take office on June 1, filling the vacancy left by Diane Trautman’s abrupt resignation. According to media reports, Hollins has pledged not to seek election to the office this November.
The decision to appoint Hollins- especially with the understanding that he won’t be running for the office- struck me as a peculiar one. I had assumed that Commissioners would look inside the office for a caretaker County Clerk. With runoff elections quickly approaching and the ongoing situation with COVID-19 continuing to cause uncertainty about how the elections will be conducted, I figured that they would look to somebody who wouldn’t have a learning curve and was already familiar with the functions and operations of the office. I was wrong.
Hollins is a personal injury attorney (his law firm website boasts of having “secured $11.1 million for our clients in 2019 alone”) and Texas Democratic Party official. Hollins’ social media and public records show that he’s also in the process of opening a sports bar in Northwest Harris County. Court records on file with the Harris County District Clerk indicate that Hollins has an active personal injury litigation docket with as many as 96 active cases on file in Harris County District Courts. He even filed a slip and fall lawsuit against Kroger on behalf of a client the day before his appointment as County Clerk was voted on by Commissioners Court.
However, it is Hollins’ representation of Harris County in Federal Court that really piqued my interest.
This past July, Harris County Commissioners Court voted to hire four law firms, including the Hollins Law Group, on a contingent-fee basis to represent the County in litigation alleging that Harris County overpaid for insulin as a result of a price-fixing scheme. Harris County’s lawsuit was filed in November and is currently pending.
Pursuant to the terms of their contract with Harris County and applicable provisions of the Texas Government Code, the lawyers hired by Harris County in this litigation will be paid the lesser of 35% of any funds recovered by the County in the litigation or an amount calculated by a formula that takes into account the number of hours worked by attorneys and legal staff on the matter multiplied by the hourly rate of the person doing the work. That amount is then multiplied by four. This purpose of this formula is to prevent lawyers working on a contingent-fee basis for a governmental entity from making an excessive windfall on a case that required relatively little work on their part.
Under section 2254.106(a) of the Texas Government Code, the hourly rate used in calculating this formula must be a “reasonable and customary rate in the relevant locality for the type of work performed and on the relevant experience, demonstrated ability, and standard hourly billing rate, if any, of the person performing the work.”
Hollins’ base hourly rate in his contract with Harris County is an eye-popping $900 per hour which, when multiplied by four as part of the fee formula, could potentially entitle Hollins to as much as $3,600 per hour for his work on behalf of Harris County.
At the time he was retained by Harris County, Hollins had been practicing law for just over 5 years. As an attorney in Harris County, I am not personally aware of any attorneys with just 5 years of experience that command a standard hourly billing rate of $900 per hour. It certainly is not anywhere near a reasonable and customary rate in the Houston area for an attorney with that level of experience.
In addition to questions surrounding the propriety of his alleged $900 “reasonable” hourly rate, Hollins’ appointment as County Clerk also brings into question whether he should be able to collect any fee at all.
Section 154.004(b) of the Texas Local Government Code prohibits a county from paying a salaried county officer “a fee or commission to the officer for the performance of a service by the officer.” It is unclear how, or if, this statute may apply to Hollins’ situation since he was not a county officer at the time he entered into his contract with Harris County and he will not likely be a county officer once any funds are recovered by the County in the litigation in which he represents the County.
Hollins can simply make this issue go away by voluntarily waiving any fee interest he may have in the litigation where he been retained by Harris County, but it is unknown if he will do so. Hollins should also assure the citizens of Harris County that his active litigation docket and business interests will not interfere will his ability to devote the significant time and energy necessary in effectively serving the public as County Clerk.
Mark McCaig is an attorney and Republican Precinct Chairman in Harris County.