Publications | Sterling Analytics
Facebook Link Twitter Link Linked In Link RSS Link
Castellano v. Charter Commc'ns, LLC

Download this article

(Volume 4, Issue 5)

In a recent case, the United States District Court for the Eastern Division of Virginia awarded plaintiff Andrea Jones $22,880.56 in attorneys’ fees for a wrongful termination suit against SouthPeak Interactive Corporation of Delaware (“Southpeak”), a 10% reduction from the original fee petition, due to block billing. 

First, the Court determined an appropriate hourly rate for one of Jones’ attorneys, Mr. Thorsen, based on the prevailing market rates within the Richmond Division for similar services.  For a fee petition, the burden is on the petitioning party to provide evidence that their requested fees are reasonable. To that end, Jones offered two affidavits from well-established lawyers with great expertise in this type of litigation.  In contrast, the Defendants offered no competing evidence of what they believed to be the market rate.  The Fourth Circuit’s McAfee[1] decision clearly states that evidence “deemed competent to show prevailing market rates includes ‘affidavits of other local lawyers who are familiar both with the skills of the fee applicants and more generally with the type of work in the relevant community.’”   Therefore, after evaluating the affidavits and the record as a whole, the Court concluded that an appropriate rate for Thorsen was $420.00 per hour, only five dollars less than what Jones requested.

The defendants also objected to the number of hours (539.45) of work allegedly provided by Thorsen.  Specifically, two isolated objections were raised: one for billing for administrative tasks and the other for “inputting and categorizing additional billing.” The Court found that such entries lacked billing judgment and therefore reduced the total time by 4.8 hours.  The Defendants also objected to 103.43 hours spent on depositions and an additional 34.41 hours spent reviewing those depositions.  However, no explanation was provided for this objection, and the Court found the time charged to be reasonable, citing the importance of reviewing depositions in order to prepare for trial.

Next, the Court considered whether the amount of hours billed by Jones’ other attorneys was reasonable.  Specifically, Jones sought compensation for 201.3 hours of services provided by Sands Anderson PC, which had already been reduced by the firm from the original total of 262.7 hours due to possibly duplicative charges. The defendants still contested the new total, arguing that “nearly every time entry has been improperly ‘block billed.’”  The Court agreed and applied a 10% across-the-board reduction to account for the improperly block billed entries. 

Finally, the Court evaluated the distribution of fees. The analysis began by recognizing that all three defendants were “liable on a single count of unlawful retaliation in violation of 18 U.S.C. §1514A.” Additionally, Jones’ termination of employment was considered a single injury incurred by all of the defendants’ actions.  Therefore, the Court finds it appropriate to award attorneys’ fees jointly and severally.

Implications for Legal Billing: Attorneys are obligated to exercise care and judgment when billing their clients, and to provide an efficient and clear billing record that allows the client to understand each service and cost provided.  Block billing makes it difficult to ascertain how much time was spent on each individual task, which is key in determining an award for legal fees. This case emphasizes that even where an attorney has already voluntarily reduced their fees due to other billing concerns, block billing alone may cause a court to make significant across the board reductions.


[1] McAfee v. Boczar, 738 F. 3d 81 (4th Cir. 2013) 

 

*Jones v. Southpeak Interactive Corp. of Delaware, 2014 WL 2993443 (E.D. Va. 2014). Full copies of court decisions may be available through counsel or through various internet or paid services.

 

By Sophia Arzoumanidis

Castellano v. Charter Commc'ns, LLC

Download this article

(Volume 4, Issue 4)

In a recent case, the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington reduced the attorney’s fee award of a prevailing party under Washington’s Freedom from Discrimination law (RCW 4.9.60.030(2)). The prevailing party sought to receive a fee award for litigation expenses equaling $70,041.85.  Under Washington Law, “a party requesting legal fees must establish that the amount of fees requested is reasonable.” The court found that many of the expenses requested did not meet the reasonableness standard and the award was reduced to $16,232.32, a 76% reduction.

First, the court examined the client expenses requested within the fee award. The court stated that, “a motion for attorney’s fees is to recoup fees and counsel’s expenses of litigation,” and that personal expenses, such as meals, parking and mileage “incurred by the plaintiff as an individual” are not reimbursable. Furthermore, the court held that a chair purchased by the attorney does not count as a litigation expense because the chair would be kept by the attorney for their personal use.

Second, the court evaluated whether the mileage reimbursement sought by the attorney was necessary. The court found that in many instances the attorney sought reimbursement for unnecessary mileage. Under 28 U.S.C.A §1821, witnesses are entitled to be reimbursed for their mileage expenses for traveling to court. However, this entitlement does not apply to attorneys and their staff. One instance in which the court found the mileage unnecessary was when the attorney charged for 18 miles to meet a witness, and 146 miles for the return.  The court found this to be excessive and warranted the exclusion of the requested mileage from the award.

Third, the court examined expenses that were deemed to be overhead or unreasonable. The court found that the attorney sought reimbursement for overhead expense items such as “postage, binder tabs, and parking.” Because these items are a cost of running a law firm, the court stated that it does not believe that “the court should pay the expenses of counsel for coming to work.”  Furthermore, the court found the $9.95 “miscellaneous expense” for a “Starbucks meeting” to be unreasonable because “an expensive latte is not an expense of litigation.” Therefore, the court excluded these expenses from the attorney fee award.  

Finally, the court examined the paralegal billing rate. The prevailing attorney sought $6,820 in paralegalfees. The court found that paralegal fees are proper expenses of litigation, but should be considered an expense and not a part of reimbursable attorney’s fees. Furthermore, the court found the $125-150 hourly rate of the paralegal to be unreasonable and unsupported by evidence.  Therefore, the court reduced the hourly rate of the paralegal to $21.63 per hour, the actual hourly rate paid by the attorney.

Implications for Legal Billing:   This case highlights the importance of attorneys only charging for expenses that are reasonable costs of litigation. A court will often reduce an attorney fee award because the expense sought to be reimbursed is considered overhead or unreasonable and is therefore not reimbursable.

Additionally, the court will not reimburse for paralegal work that is billed at a high rate if that rate is unsupported by evidence.  If the court does not find convincing evidence for an award of a high rate for a paralegal, it will reduce the award to what is found reasonable within the geographic and practice area.

*Castellano v. Charter Commc’ns, LLC, C12-5845 RJB, 2014 WL 1569242 (W.D. Wash. Apr. 17, 2014). Full copies of court decisions may be available through counsel or through various internet or paid services.

 

By, Nicole Della Ragione

Scott v. City of Denver

Download this article

(Volume 4, Issue 3)

In January 2014, the United States District Court for the District of Colorado ruled on a fee request made by plaintiff’s attorneys in a claim asserting that Denver violated the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide plaintiff with a sign language interpreter during his incarceration. Although the case was settled pre-trial for $15,000 and reasonable attorney fees, the plaintiff’s attorneys initially sought compensatory damages, equitable relief for himself and others, $60,000 in damages, $240,000 in attorney fees, and the ability to participate in the drafting of new city policies. After applying the “Lodestar” method, the court ultimately reduced the attorney fee request by 66% from $427,372.50 to $141,032.

Before applying the Lodestar method, the court discussed the gross disparity between the attorney fee request, approximately $427,000 and the plaintiff’s pre-trial settlement, $15,000, explaining that although they need not be completely proportional, the large disparity mandates a higher standard of scrutiny.

The Lodestar method finds a reasonable fee award by “multiplying a reasonable hourly rate by the reasonable number of hours expended, and adjusting that figure upward or downward to account for any extraordinary circumstances.” In applying the Lodestar method, the court found a number of objectionable fee entries that justified altering the award.  Objectionable entries included unreasonable attorney hourly rates, excessive time for task, overstaffing, and billing attorney hourly rates for clerical tasks and unproductive travel time.

The court provided a plethora of examples of these objectionable charges. Regarding unreasonable attorney rates, the court found the attorneys’ hourly rates, $440 and $290, were well outside its calculation of the reasonable market rates, $375 and $200, for each attorney’s practice level. The court also found that the attorneys billed twice as many hours as reasonably necessary to prepare for depositions. One example included billing 85 hours in preparation for a six hour deposition. The court also reduced attorneys’ fees for billing for discussions with each other and with paralegals and billing for unnecessary attendance at depositions for which only one attorney had prepared. The court also refused to compensate attorneys for time spent on “tactical decisions” that had unclear significance to the action. Finally, the court reduced the fee award when the attorneys’ billed their hourly rate for unproductive travel time and for clerical tasks including “several hours relating to preparation of a ‘video outreach letter to potential witnesses,’ including recording the video, posting it to You Tube, and burning 90 DVDs.”

Finally, in determining the extent of the award reduction, the court also considered the plaintiff’s attorneys’ obtainment of “fairly little in return for his enormous expenditure of attorney fees,” observing that the attorneys’ fees would have been substantially less had they initially limited their scope to collecting the $15,000 settlement instead of seeking and failing to attain multiple other forms of relief.

Implications for Legal Billing: This case identifies many common objectionable charges that may be excluded from a fee award via the application of the Lodestar method. Here, the objectionable charges include unreasonable hourly rates, excessive time for task, overstaffing, and billing attorney rates for clerical tasks and unproductive travel time and resulted in a 66% reduction in the fee award.

The severity of this reduction indicates that courts may adopt heightened scrutiny when a large discrepancy exists between a settlement amount and a fee request.  Additionally, this case highlights the fact that courts may take into account the overall success of the claim when adjusting a fee award via the Lodestar method. 

*Scott v. City and County of Denver, 2014 WL 287558 (D. Col. 2014). Full copies of court decisions may be               available through counsel or through various internet or paid services.

By Melissa Sterling

Viveros v. Donahue

Download this article

(Volume 4, Issue 2)

In March 2013, the United States District Court, Central District of California reduced the hours billed by Plaintiff’s counsel from 1,236 to 740.6. This 40 percent reduction was a result of excessive billing and “padding” and/or duplicative billing. The Court concluded that 740.6 hours was a reasonable amount of time found similarly by other district courts in analogous cases.

The Court used the “lodestar” method in determining the amount of attorney fees to award. This method entails multiplying the number of hours “reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate.” The reasonable hourly rate is typically found by referring to the prevailing market rate for similar services provided. The burden is on the requesting party to provide evidence that the requested fees are reasonable compared to the prevailing rates within the community for similar services of lawyers with equal skill and experience. Therefore, the Plaintiff had the burden of producing such evidence, which he failed to do. Plaintiff claimed $500 was an appropriate hourly rate yet only provided evidence to suggest that such an hourly rate was appropriate for attorneys with significantly more experience than his attorneys. The Court concluded an hourly rate of $350 was more appropriate based on the defendant’s evidence and published data indicating the prevailing rate within the community is lower than $500.

Once the hourly rate was established, the Court determined whether the number of hours billed by Plaintiff’s counsel was excessive. The Defendant’s fees expert argued that one efficient attorney could have successfully completed all the work that the Plaintiff’s three attorneys completed in approximately 600 billable hours. The Court agreed with the opposing side and concluded the hours were indeed excessive. Some examples that the court pointed to demonstrate this conclusion: one attorney reported that she spent 1.2 hours filling out a one-page substitution of counsel request form and another attorney reported spending 4.2 hours preparing for a telephonic conference that generally lasts only 5-15 minutes. The Court also discovered some duplicative billing. For example, one attorney billed four hours to draft the Plaintiff’s opposition to defendant’s motion to dismiss even though he was not the “managing partner” assigned to the matter. In the end, the actual managing partner drafted the final opposition, but both attorneys still billed for their time. The court held that the first attorney’s preparation of the pleading was duplicative.

After reviewing the time entries, the Court also discovered that the Plaintiff’s attorneys billed for paralegal and/or clerical work at attorney rates. For example, one attorney billed five hours preparing for a deposition, which included “organizing exhibits.” Such a task is more appropriately completed by a paralegal. The same attorney also billed an hour to prepare subpoenas, even though this is a task that is typically completed by a paralegal or secretary. Such instances of ineffective billing authorize a reduction in fees.

Implications for Legal Billing: The Court’s decision emphasizes the importance of accuracy when attorneys bill their hours. Attorneys are responsible for billing work that is appropriate for someone of their experience and level of expertise. Additionally, unless there is an exception, lawyers should only charge what is considered a comparable and reasonable hourly rate within the relevant market.

Excessive and redundant billing can easily be avoided by attorneys, as well as billing for secretarial and/or clerical tasks which are included in the firm’s overhead costs. Lawyers must aim to bill efficiently and in doing so they will be more productive and accurate in their performance of the work.

* Viveros v. Donahoe, 2013 WL 1224848 (C.D Cal. 2013). Full copies of court decisions may be available through counsel or through various Internet links or paid services.

By Sophia Arzoumanidis

EEOC v. Autozone

Download this article

(Volume 4, Issue 1)

In a recent case, the United States District Court for the Eastern Division of Missouri substantially reduced the requested attorney’s fees of a prevailing party under Missouri Industrial Maintenance and Construction Power Equipment Act (“MCPEA”). The party sought to receive an award of attorney’s fees and costs equaling $950,327.90. The District Court reduced this request to $130,229.06 due to “inadequate billing records, overlawyering, and because of the result obtained.” 

First, the court evaluated what would be deemed a reasonable amount of time expended for the tasks required in the matter. The attorneys billed a total of 2364.50 hours for the matter which amounted to a total fee of $728,861.00. While the Courts evaluation states that this would be considered a reasonable amount of time spent on a matter of this magnitude, the way in which the billing was done would make it impossible for the Court to deem the total amount of hours as valid. The Court stated that “’block billing’ made it difficult for the Court to determine the reasonableness of the attorney’s time expenditures.”  Since block billing occurs when an attorney lists several activities under one time entry, it makes it nearly impossible for the Court to determine how much time was spent on the each individual activity. For this reason, the Court removed all time entries that reflected block billing and subtracted the dollar amount from the request award, which resulted in a deduction of $109,975.00.

Next, the court evaluated the amount of attorney’s that billed for a specific task to see if overlawyering occurred. The court deemed that there were multiple instances in which overlawyering, or overstaffing, occurred in the context of several attorneys working redundantly on the same project, as well as duplicative deposition attendances. The court deemed these billing actions to be unreasonable overlawyering and removed each entry that reflected billing in this manner, resulting in a reduction in the amount of $220,562.50 from the amount of attorney’s fees requested.

The final factor that the court deemed required a substantial reduction is due to the result ultimately achieved by the attorneys.  The attorneys were seeking an award for their clients in the amount of $6 million dollars in damages. The jury ultimately awarded the clients a damage award in the amount of $50,000.00. The Court found that this outcome warranted a substantial reduction in the amount of attorney fees that could be awarded.  The court found that a 75% reduction was appropriate since that attorney only recovered 0.08% of the amount they sought. The Court therefore, ultimately reduced the attorney’s fees award to $86,364.88.

The Court then looked to the costs that the party was seeking for reimbursement. The Court deemed that the court lacked sufficient proof in the areas of Trial Support Costs and for Electronic Discovery management.  Since the attorney’s did not provide sufficient proof to establish that services were reasonable, the Court deemed that the attorney could not recover any of the requested amount of $49,942.80. Furthermore, the court reduced the amount of Expert Witness fee’s that could be recovered due to the lack of clear legal billing and because of the ultimate result achieved by the attorneys. The court reduced the Expert Witness fee’s from $148,861.26 to $22,437.30.

Implications for Legal Billing: This decision highlights the importance of attorneys keeping detailed billing records. Additionally, attorneys must utilize billing judgment to ensure that the correct amounts of attorneys are assigned to a given task. A court will often reduce the amount of attorney’s fees requested where the billing is unclear and does not allow them to adequately assess if the amount of time billed would be reasonable for a certain task.

Additionally, the court will not award attorney’s fees for costs that do not have adequate proof that the cost was necessary to the matter or if it is unclear if the cost was billed correctly. The court will not reimburse for costs if the court cannot deem the costs reasonable. Alternatively, the court may lower the amount reimbursed if it is not proportional to the amount of damages won at trial.

*Mach. Maint., Inc. v. Generac Power Sys., Inc., 4:12-CV-793-JCH, 2014 WL 1725833 (E.D. Mo. Apr. 29, 2014) Full copies of court decisions may be available through counsel or through various Internet links or paid services.

By Nicole Della Ragione

EEOC v. Autozone

Download this article

(Volume 3, Issue 5)

In June 2013, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California made a $41,059.93 reduction to the $187,020 fee request by plaintiff’s attorneys in an action enforcing accessibility requirements set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This 22% reduction in fees was the result of the court’s determination that Plaintiff’s attorneys expended an excessive amount of time meeting with co-counsel as well as in preparation for motions submitted after a settlement had been reached. In addition to the fee reduction, the Court also excluded $3,619.50 of the expenses requested for lack of documentation and lack of billing judgment. Despite the large overall reduction, the Court failed to adopt several of the defense expert’s assertions, including that the attorneys’ billing rates were unreasonable and that Plaintiff’s attorneys used block-billing practices.

Addressing the excessive conferencing, the Court noted that 21% of the lead attorney’s time and 47 % of a co-counsel’s time was billed for internal conferences. While Defendant’s expert recommended that a 4% limit should be imposed for each timekeeper, the Court refused to take such a stringent approach, relying rather on a case by case analysis. Ultimately, the Court determined that the amount of conferencing was excessive, and reduced each amount to reflect 10% of the time billed, an 11% and 37% reduction respectively.

Next, the court addressed the number of hours expended by Plaintiff’s counsel on its opposition to Defendant’s motion to continue the consent decree, Plaintiff’s motion for fees, and Plaintiff’s reply brief and motion to strike regarding its motion for fees. Despite acknowledging that Plaintiff’s opposition was reasonable under the circumstances, the Court held that the 40.3 hours expended to draft Plaintiff’s opposition was excessive given the uncomplicated nature of the issues. With respect to the 30.8 hours billed for the fee motion, the Court took exception to the fact that 18.3 hours, nearly 60% of the work, was billed by the attorney with the highest rate. Lastly, the Court addressed the motion to strike and reply brief. The court disallowed all of the hours billed for the motion to strike the Defendant’s fee expert because it failed to comply with the court rules. In addition, the court found the 23.9 hours expended on the reply brief to be excessive in light of the issues raised and counsel’s experience even though counsel had already reduced the amount sought by 10% as an exercise of billing judgment. For all of the hours billed on the three motions above, the Court reduced the fees requested by 50% to reflect the excessive time spent on the tasks.

Finally, the court addressed expenses submitted in relation to the case. Noting a distinct lack of documentation to support either the per-item cost or the end-product of the copying and researching expenses, the Court declined to allow recovery in any amount, a reduction of $1,431.18 and $1,286.69 respectively. Furthermore, the Court disallowed several miscellaneous expenses, including local travel, due to the fact that Plaintiff’s attorneys could not cite any authority indicating that these expenses were reasonable.

In sum, the court awarded $149,920.57 in fees and expenses for a case that settled for injunctive relief and $43,000 in statutory damages.

Implications for Legal Billing:

This decision highlights that attorneys must observe billing judgment and work to minimize the time expended when faced with familiar issues. Whether a case requires significant work subsequent to settlement is case-specific, but prevailing counsel that does not effectively monitor its hours throughout the process risks facing large reductions for inefficient work.
Finally, the decision demonstrates that it is unreasonable to seek recovery for expenses that are either unsupported by documentation or not reasonably recoverable under common law. The costs related to litigation should be reasonably necessary and well documented in order to be recoverable.

* Cruz v. Starbucks Corp., 2013 WL 2447862 (N.D. Cal. 2013). Full copies of court decisions may be available through counsel or through various Internet links or paid services.

By Riley Orloff

EEOC v. Autozone

Download this article

(Volume 3, Issue 4)

In January 2013, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee reduced a fee award by approximately 20 percent. The Court reduced the requested fees from $98,074.00 to $80,499.14 and awarded $5,706.01 for costs incurred in the litigation, for a total award of $86,205.15. Among the reductions, the Court applied a 4 percent across the board reduction for unreasonable hourly rates. The Court also applied an additional 10 percent reduction for excessive billing entries and a 5 percent reduction for billing at an attorney’s full hourly rate for travel time.

First, the Court stated that the lodestar analysis should be used to determine the reasonableness of legal fees in this case. The Court further explained that to determine the appropriate hourly rate, courts must consider “the prevailing market rate in the relevant community.” In this case, the Court found that the hourly rate of $440 charged by one of the attorneys was unreasonable.  According to the Court, charging at that rate was inconsistent with the prevailing market rate in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Court reasoned that the attorney has failed to show a valid reason as to why his $440 rate was reasonable in light of the services provided. Accordingly, the Court applied an overall 4 percent reduction.

Second, the Court found that a further reduction was warranted due to excessive billing for a number of components in the litigation. First, the Court found that spending 27.9 hours researching and drafting an eleven page document was excessive. Second, the Court stated that spending 92.4 hours preparing for a trial that lasted approximately 5.5 hours was also excessive. Third, the Court found equally troubling the amount of time spent in preparation for post-trial (118.4 hours spent drafting a thirty-two page document). Thus, to redress these excessive entries, the Court applied an additional 10 percent reduction.

Finally, the Court held that a reduction for billing for travel time at an attorney’s full hourly rate was also appropriate in this case. The Court explained that courts “regularly reduce travel compensation to fifty-percent of the reasonable hourly rate for counsel.” Here, 10 percent of the hours originally submitted were compensation for travel time billed at the attorney’s full hourly rates. Accordingly, the Court found that reducing the total award by 5 percent would adequately discount for the travel time entries billed at the full hourly rate.

Implications for Legal Billing:

This case addresses a number of important billing issues. First, it illustrates the importance of charging reasonable hourly rates. Unless an exception applies, attorneys are expected to charge hourly rates that are consistent with the prevailing rates in the relevant market. Courts have full discretion to reduce hourly rates to an amount that they find reasonable.

In addition, this case also illustrates that courts have the discretion to make across the board reductions for time excessively spent on a task. To avoid these types of reductions, attorneys should use their billing judgment and voluntarily reduce legal fees where the time spent on any given task seems excessive in relation to the task performed.

Finally, the Court again emphasized that travel time should not be billed at an attorney’s full hourly rate. Attorneys should be aware that the prevailing standard is to bill half of their hourly rate, at most, for time spent traveling when no legal services are performed during travel.  

* Grant v. Shaw Environmental, Inc., 2013 WL 1305599 (E.D. Tenn.2013). Full copies of court decisions may be available through counsel or through various Internet links or paid services.

By Enkelena Gjuka

EEOC v. Autozone

Download this article

(Volume 3, Issue 3)

In May 2013, the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma made a $116,148.15 reduction to the $145,148.50 fee request by plaintiff’s attorneys in a Title VII work-place discrimination suit.  This 80 percent reduction in fees was, in part, the result of the court’s determination that counsel failed to exercise billing judgment by overstaffing and by filing inconsequential appeals.  A substantial portion of the reduction reflected a downward adjustment to the lodestar amount due to a relative lack of success on the underlying claims. 

The court first addressed the possibility of overstaffing and duplicative billing considering that “[v]irtually all of the tasks undertaken by [P]laintiff’s counsel involved the substantial involvement of at least two attorneys.”  Although the court suggested that the use of more than one attorney is unremarkable, at instant, the court took exception with the substantial review and revision of documents undertaken by multiple attorneys and the substantial amount of time spent in “interoffice conferences between counsel,” given the purported experience of counsel.  The court also reduced the award for the use of a second lawyer at trial when the record showed that the second lawyer had little to no participation over the short duration of the trial.  Lastly, the court reduced the award in light of counsel’s decision to staff a third lawyer, unfamiliar with the case at hand, to prepare the response to Defendant’s summary judgment motion when two other lawyers had handled all of the pretrial proceedings. In light of Plaintiff’s Counsel’s use of block billing, which prevented an accurate culling of the duplicative hours, the court reduced the total hours expended by 30 percent to reflect the excess time spent on matters above, reducing the initial lodestar amount to $101,603.95.

Next, the court addressed whether the relative lack of success on the merits warranted a reduction from the initial lodestar amount.  Given the almost nominal recovery in this case—especially when compared to what Plaintiff sought at the pleading stage—the Court determined that a two-thirds reduction was necessary based on the results obtained.  This adjustment, tentatively, reduced the fee award to $33,868. 

Finally, the court addressed whether the time spent on post-judgment motions by Plaintiff’s counsel, with regards to both a motion for pre- and post-judgment interest and the motion for attorneys’ fees, was reasonable given the low level of recovery at issue.  Given that the applicable interest rates would have resulted in an award of $1.79 in pre-judgment interest, the court was not impressed by counsel’s motion for interest and, ultimately, held that any entries billed in connection with the motion for interest would be excluded.  Additionally, the court took exception with counsel’s fee motion, which generated a fee request exceeding the Plaintiff’s recovery, and excluded any hours expended on this motion as well.  Again due to counsel’s practice of block billing, the court elected to exclude all entries that included any time attributable to either motion since it was impossible to effectively parse the block-billed entries.  Overall, this exclusion amounted to a $5,332.50 adjustment in the overall fee awards.

In sum, the court awarded only 20% of the legal fees requested, a total of $29,000.35 in fees and costs, for a case that resulted in a $2,984 jury award following a two-day trial. 

Implications for Legal Billing: This decision highlights that attorneys must staff judiciously and work to eliminate inefficiencies created by the use of multiple attorneys.  Whether a case requires the work of two or more attorneys is case-specific, but prevailing counsel that does not effectively monitor its hours throughout the process risks facing large reductions for inefficient work.

The court’s decision also highlights that success on the merits is a necessary factor when adjusting the initial lodestar amount.  An attorney who seeks a substantial fee for a relatively nominal award risks large deductions, or possibly the denial of attorneys’ fees altogether.

Finally, the decision demonstrates that when block billing impedes the court’s meaningful review of the billing entries the court is more apt to apply an across the board percentage reduction to the block billed entries.   

* Cox v. Council for Developmental Disabilities, Inc., 2013 WL 1915066 (W.D. Okla. 2013). Full copies of court decisions may be available through counsel or through various Internet links or paid services.

By Riley Orloff

EEOC v. Autozone

Download this article

(Volume 3, Issue 2)

In March 2013, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts made a $100,155.90 reduction to the $220,355.50 fee request by plaintiff’s attorneys in a Title VII work-place discrimination suit. This 45% reduction in fees was the result of the court’s determination that neither the amount of hours expended nor the hourly rates requested were an accurate reflection of the services actually provided. Within the amount of hours expended, the court raised concerns with the practices of overstaffing, excessive time spent on tangential tasks, and a lack of billing judgment, including billing for clerical tasks and block billing.

The court first addressed the possibility of overstaffing and duplicative billing given that the underlying action was being litigated by both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the individual claimant as joint plaintiffs. Although the employer asserted that the EEOC had “sufficiently represented [the claimant’s] rights,” the court held that the language of the Title VII fee-shifting statute clearly recognizes both the claimants “right to intervene in such a lawsuit to protect his individual rights” and that “attorney’s fees are due to any prevailing party.” However, the court did take exception to the claimant’s use of five attorneys, in addition to those of the EEOC, to work on his behalf. After parsing the time entries of all five attorneys, the court deducted 134.95 hours of the 734.5 total hours expended in order to remedy the inefficiencies of overstaffing. In addition to the reductions due to overstaffing, the court deducted an additional 19.5 hours which it determined constituted excessive conferencing and supervision due to the participation of too many attorneys.

Next, the court addressed hours expended that were clearly not in furtherance of the litigation, including time expended on media relations and time expended for the claimant’s personal affairs. The court held that, even in matters of great public interest, time spent by counsel “interfacing with the press” is not recoverable. Therefore, the court elected to deduct 3.2 hours that one attorney spent “counseling [claimant] and other individuals on how to handle media inquiries.” The court also took exception to time expended on claimant’s personal affairs, not sufficiently related to the litigation. Even though the majority of the hours spent on personal affairs was either to counsel claimant on “how to deal with threatening telephone calls” as a result of the litigation or to seek a “religious accommodation” so claimant could carry a ceremonial weapon into the federal courthouse for official litigation proceedings, the court held that these issues were not sufficiently related to the litigation itself and therefore not properly recoverable in an action for attorney’s fees. A total of 22.9 hours were deducted for counsel’s efforts in furtherance of these two issues.

Then, to remedy issues with billing for clerical tasks and block billing, the court imposed a twenty percent global reduction to the four attorneys’ with entries in question.

Finally, the court addressed the reasonableness of the rates requested by the two highest billing attorneys. The court determined that affidavits asserting that the attorney was of comparable skill and experience to large-firm commercial litigators were insufficient evidence to warrant the lead attorney’s requested rate for individual civil rights cases. The court also refused to accept the attorney’s argument that, despite insufficient documentation, his rate was still reasonable when compared to the Laffey Matrix—an annual rate schedule used by the US Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia—because evidence of reasonableness in comparison to rates in Washington, D.C. cannot be used as evidence of reasonableness in Boston, MA. Accordingly, the court reduced the lead attorney’s rate from $425 to $350, which still exceeded the rate awarded to the same attorney by the same court in a different civil rights matter.

In sum, the court awarded only 55% of the legal fees requested, along with the full amount of expenses requested, for a total of $120,199.60 in fees and $2,623.15 in costs for a case that settled for injunctive relief, $75,000 in monetary relief, and reasonable attorney’s fees.

Implications for Legal Billing: This decision highlights that attorneys must staff judiciously and work to eliminate inefficiencies created by the use of multiple attorneys. Whether a case requires the work of two or more attorneys is case-specific, but prevailing counsel that does not effectively monitor its hours throughout the process risks facing large reductions for inefficient work.
The court’s decision also highlights that it is unreasonable to seek recovery for affairs that are tangential or lack sufficient relation to the litigation itself. The time expended by attorneys should reasonably be in furtherance of the litigation at-hand.
Finally, the decision demonstrates that counsel should not bill for clerical tasks nor describe the time spent in blocks of time as opposed to billing each discrete task separately, as such practices may subject counsel’s time to a percentage global reduction, as was applied in this case.

*EEOC v. Autozone, Inc., 2013 WL 1277873 (D.Mass. 2013). Full copies of court decisions may be available through counsel or through various Internet links or paid services.

By Riley Orloff

Carter v. Wolf

Download this article

(Volume 3, Issue 1)

In May 2013, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut reduced a fee award from $388,270.11 to $229,942.20.  The court, deducting $158,327.91, awarded $219,672.16 in attorney fees but awarded the full amount of costs and expenses totaling $10,270.04. Among the deductions, the Court denied recovery of $20,000 for one attorney’s services, who failed to provide billing records for his work. In addition, the Court applied a 15 percent across the board deduction for vague billing and travel time  that had been billed improperly at full rate.

First, the Court denied the request of $20,000 in fees for one attorney’s failure to produce billing records. The Court did not question the attorney’s services but found that his statements alone were insufficient to allow the Court “to meaningfully review the reasonableness of the fee requested.” Therefore, the Court denied recovery for services rendered by that Attorney.

Second, the Court applied a 15 percent across the board deduction for vague billing. The Court, citing Conn. Hosp. Ass’n v. O’Neil, stated that “[f]ees should not be awarded for time entries when the corresponding description of work performed is ‘vague and therefore not susceptible to a determination of whether the time [billed] was reasonably expended.’” The Court further provided that entries such as “review file,” “review of correspondence,” “conference with client,” “preparation of brief,” and “research” do not provide an adequate basis to evaluate the reasonableness of services and time spent on a matter.

In addition, the Court explained that although a court may attempt to clarify vague entries by looking at the context of the other entries, it is “‘neither practical nor desirable to review each entry in a massive case.” Thus, in consistence with other courts, the Court applied a percentage reduction method. The Court stated that, although they had no reason to believe that work was not done, “without more detail the Court cannot fairly evaluate the reasonableness of the services and hours rendered.” Accordingly, the Court found that a 15 percent reduction was warranted.

Finally, the Court agreed that travel time should not be billed at an attorney’s full hourly rate. Nevertheless, no further reductions for travel time were made because the Court found that the overall 15 percent deductions fairly accounted for the work reasonably completed by the attorneys.

Implications for Legal Billing:

This case illustrates the importance of recording services and maintaining contemporaneous billing records. In the absence of billing records, the court has discretion to not only reduce the amount of legal fees but also deny an award altogether.

Moreover, this case also illustrates that courts have the discretion to, and often do, reduce legal fees when work cannot be identified with sufficient certainty. Specific billing entries allow clients and the court to determine whether charges fairly reflect the work described. Since Vague billing entries gives courts the discretion to apply an across the board percentage  reduction, this further highlights the importance of billing services with specificity to avoid significant deductions.

Finally, the Court again reiterated that travel time should not be billed at an attorney’s full hourly rate. While no further deductions were taken in this case based on travel time, counsel should be cautioned to avoid billing their travel time at their full hourly rate, especially when no services are being performed during travel.

*Carter v. Wolf, 2013 WL 1946827 (D.Conn. May 9, 2013). Full copies of court decisions may be available through counsel or through various Internet links or paid services.

By Enkelena Gjuka

© 2011 Sterling Analytics Group, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Photo Credits Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha