Local Attorney Seeks State Reimbursment for Accompaniment Assistance in Indigent Cases

August 21, 2008
by: 
Dwayne Page
Sarah Cripps

Smithville Attorney Sarah Cripps, like any other local lawyer, is reimbursed by the state for representing indigent clients assigned to her by the courts.

However unlike other local attorneys, Cripps is blind so she must employ, at her own expense, someone to provide assistance to her in the representation of those indigents.

Cripps believes she should be reimbursed by the state for this "accompaniment assistance" but the Supreme Court of Tennessee's Administrative Office of the Courts has denied her requests.

Cripps believes it's unfair to her and is a violation of federal law, specifically, the "Americans with Disabilities Act". "My battle with the Administrative Office of the Courts really started in 1997. In September of that year, I was hired by Judge Jerry Smith on the Court of Criminal Appeals, as a law clerk. I contacted the Administrative Office of the Courts shortly after I was hired in that full time position and asked them if they would grant me a reasonable accommodation under the "Americans with Disabilities Act" and pay for a full time reader, which I required to be able to perform my job. They denied that request. Then I started in private practice and as one of the duties as a member of the local bar, I began to be appointed to represent indigent people in two circumstances. In the criminal arena, I represent indigent people when the Public Defender's Office has a conflict of interest. The second time this comes up is when there are Department of Children Services cases and the people are indigent. Therefore, we do a lot of representation in Juvenile Court. I have asked the AOC a couple of times over the years to pay for my assistant to help me and nine times out of ten that is Rebecca Reedy, who reads to me the warrants and the petitions filed by the state either criminally and in the DCS cases. She accompanies me to court on all of these appointed cases and assists me in the courtroom setting. The AOC has denied that expense and has refused to pay for the time that she spends assisting me on appointed matters. I don't feel it's fair for me as a private attorney to have to pay additional expenses to render myself capable of doing what a sighted attorney can do without an assistant."

Jeana D. Hendrix, Indigent Defense Manager of the AOC, in a letter to Cripps dated August 19th, 2008, states that " After a thorough and careful review of your inquiry concerning the reimbursement of costs associated with the assistance provided to you in conjunction with your representation of indigent defendants/respondents, the Administrative Office of the Courts has determined that this expense is not reimbursable to you under the current provisions of Supreme Court Rule 13, Indigent Defense Fund. This determination is based on the language of Supreme Court Rule 13, section 4(a)(2), which states that ‘the services or time of a paralegal, law clerk, secretary, legal assistant, or other administrative assistants shall not be reimbursed. Normal overhead expenses also shall not be reimbursed."

Cripps insists that the person she employs to help her in these court cases, Rebecca Reedy, cannot be classified by any of the terms of the section cited by Hendrix. "My answer to that is, I agree with Rule 13 as far as it goes and if I were seeking compensation or reimbursement for a legal secretary or for someone that performs the job of a paralegal with me in court, I think that their answer is correct. However, what they either refuse to see or I have not been able to get them to understand is that she (my assistant) doesn't perform the services of a legal secretary or a paralegal. She is essentially my set of eyes to read to me when we are handed exhibits in court, to describe photographs for me, to locate my clients in the packed gallery, to take me to different rooms to meet with my clients, to find DCS personnel so that I can meet with them because there would be no way for me to find them, to take me to other rooms to find District Attorney Generals to meet with, those are the sundry services that she performs and for which I feel she should be compensated."

"My other response to their argument on Rule 13 and what I am contending is that I'm due reimbursement under the federal law "The Americans with Disabilities Act". I'm contending it's a reasonable accommodation that the state of Tennessee must make on account of my disability, total blindness. They can cite Rule 13 all they like, but one of the first things you learn in law school is where there's a federal law and a state statute, the federal law is going to control every time if there is a conflict. That's called federal pre-emption. So they can cite that rule all they want, but if that rule doesn't make allowance for or is in conflict in any way with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it's my position that the federal act is going to control.'

"They also have given me another argument. I've spoken with Elizabeth Sykes, who is the head of the AOC. Her response was that she felt this was a county problem. In other words, the county should provide a courthouse staff member to assist me on any given day and that I should not take an employee of mine to court with me. My response to that is these cases are brought under Tennessee law. The District Attorney General's Office prosecutes these cases. The cases are prosecuted with state funds and with the aid of state resources. The people who defend these cases are paid for out of a state fund. The Indigent Defense Fund is a state fund. The Public Defender's Office is paid for out of state monies allocated by the legislature. Therefore, it seems very incongruous to say that if state monies are being poured into these cases, that the county then should pay for an assistant on a state case."

General Sessions/Juvenile Court Judge Bratten Cook II, in support of Cripps' claim, issued a standing order regarding appointed representation on August 1st, 2008. The order states that " From and after this date, all accompaniment expense incurred by Sarah Cripps, Esq., shall be reimbursed at the rate of $12.00 per hour subject to approval by the Director. Such charges shall be included in the Claim for Fees as necessary expenses. The undersigned (Judge) is aware of Rule 13, Section 4 (a) (2) of the Supreme Court Rules, however the Director is advised that Sarah Cripps is totally blind, and must have accompaniment assistance in her representation of indigents, and under any concept of fairness, such expense should be reimbursed to counsel for the indigent parties."

Cripps says she hopes the Judge's order will have an impact in her situation. "What impact I hope that it may have is that it will be another voice of reason and, unlike mine, a voice of authority who is in control of the appointments that I get. I could not ask for someone to be more supportive of me than Judge Cook. He has backed me 150% on this issue because he see's what Becky (my assistant) does everyday, all day long , sometimes until 6:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on the juvenile dockets and he knows what Becky does. So what I hope this order will do is to bring reason to chaos and help them realize that I'm not seeking paralegal reimbursement."

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