FOREST CITY — A request by several Word Of Faith Fellowship members to have legal fees reimbursed by the Department of Social Services has been denied.
Kent and Brooke Covington had requested approximately $300,000 in legal fees of theirs and those of Sarah and Rachael Almanie be reimbursed after a DSS custody action involving the Almanies was overturned by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
In October of 2003, DSS won a ruling that removed the Almanie sisters and their two brothers from Covington’s home.
The ruling indicated that the WOFF, for which the Covingtons serve as ministers, created an environment abusive to children.
The Court of Appeals overturned that ruling and ordered the children returned to their status before the ruling.
The children’s mother, Shana Muse, has been trying to win back custody of her children since leaving the WOFF in 2002. Muse left the children with the Covingtons while she went to Ohio for counseling from the Wellspring Retreat, which treats former cult members.
Muse and other former WOFF members contend the church is a cult, a position denied by the WOFF.
Muse signed a temporary custody agreement with the Covingtons in December 2002 and later commenced a legal effort to regain full custody of the children.
DSS brought the action claiming that Muse, by the very act of leaving the children in the WOFF environment, had abused her children and thus the children should be placed in DSS custody.
David Goldstein of the New York law firm Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman was one of several attorney representing the Covingtons and the Almanie sisters in the various proceedings.
“The important thing to focus on here is the decision by the Court of Appeals that the only DSS investigation that took place showed that there was no abuse or neglect of the children,” said Goldstein. “Under those circumstances, we believed it was appropriate to ask the trial court for fees given that there was no lawful basis for what DSS had done.”
DSS declined to comment on the ruling.
Judge Athena Brooks issued the ruling denying the request after listening to testimony two weeks ago and reviewing further documents provided by attorneys for both sides.
The ruling states that a state statute allowing for provision of attorney’s fees is only available in cases brought by the state or contesting state action.
Brooks considered DSS a county agency and not a state agency.
Brooks also did not choose to exercise the court’s discretion and award attorney fees nonetheless.
The Court of Appeals overturned the original trial court ruling by District Court Judge Randy Pool on the grounds that DSS did not appropriately bring the matter to court and thus the court lacked jurisdiction
Brooks said even though that was the case, she did not see the DSS action as “frivolous” and that abuse and neglect charges are serious.
Brooks said the issue was similar to a criminal defendant who had chosen to represent himself at trial.
The Almanie sisters had a guardian ad litem appointed to them, but were not happy with the services and decided to hire their own attorney, Philip Roth.
The Almanies, like a criminal defendant hiring his own attorney, are liable for the cost of that representation regardless of the verdict, Brooks wrote.
The couple and the sisters have been represented by several attorneys including Roth, Tom Hix, Phillip Jackson and Goldstein, Roger Bearden and Eric Lieberman from the New York law firm.
Court documents indicate up to $328,000 spent on legal fees on the DSS case, the appeal and on emancipation proceedings for the Almanie sisters.
WOFF was not a named party in any of the cases, though court documents indicate some of the bills were sent to the church’s address in Spindale.
It is not known if the church paid any of the legal bills in question.
In a separate matter, DSS and the WOFF recently settled a federal discrimination lawsuit brought by WOFF against DSS.
WOFF was awarded $305,000 and the parties agreed to certain criteria for investigating future allegations of child abuse at the WOFF.
Prior to the Court of Appeals ruling, the Almanie sisters filed for and won emancipation to be considered legal adults.
They were released from DSS custody and returned to the home of the Covingtons.
The two boys are younger and have lived with the Covingtons since the Court of Appeals ruling.
Muse has revived a civil custody case to try to regain custody of the boys.