INDIANAPOLIS — A couple whose lawsuit challenging a school district's new dress code was rejected has been ordered by a federal judge to pay nearly $41,000 in court costs.
Laura and Scott Bell's lawsuit was thrown out by U.S. District Judge John D. Tinder in August after the couple missed critical deadlines and pressed claims he deemed frivolous.
Now, Tinder has ordered the couple to pay Anderson Community Schools the $40,931 the district says its law firm charged for defending the couple's lawsuit in July and August.
"It's flat ridiculous," said Laura Bell, noting that the amount is more than the family's annual income.
The judge's decision underlines the risk of wading into legal waters without a lawyer, as the Bells did. In litigation, paying the winning side's attorney fees is common.
The Bells, of Anderson, sued in July to try to prevent a new dress-code policy from taking effect. The couple, who has five school-age children and stepchildren, contended the policy would wrongly take control away from parents.
The code, which is similar to policies other courts have upheld, requires students to wear collared shirts of solid color; blue, navy or khaki-colored pants or long skirts; and belts.
The Bells learned that hiring an attorney could cost tens of thousands of dollars, so they proceeded without one, a move that's called "pro se" in the legal world.
The district sought to transfer the suit from Madison Circuit Court to federal court in Indianapolis, beginning a flurry of motions and deadlines that Laura Bell said was overwhelming.
Tinder dismissed the couple's lawsuit on Aug. 6, ruling in favor of Anderson Community Schools on all federal law claims and dismissing the couple's First Amendment claim.
On Dec. 13, he issued his order to the couple to pay up, along with his ruling concerning the defendants' motion for attorney fees.
"Plaintiffs were advised on more than one occasion that the losing party in this case may be required to pay the other side's costs, and even attorneys' fees," Tinder wrote.
With a growing number of people representing themselves in court, the trend presents a challenge to judges used to dealing with well-versed attorneys.
William F. Dressel, a former judge and the president of the National Judicial College in Reno, Nev., said Tinder gave the Bells fair warning.
"What the judge did is correctly utilize and apply the law," he said.
Laura Bell, whose children have tried to follow the dress policy, said she and her husband thought they could end the case by paying $1,800 in court costs.
With a family to support and Christmas presents to pay for, Laura Bell said the judge's order was "going to sit there. I'm not paying it, obviously."