What Impact Can Vague Entries and Block Billing Have on Legal Fees?

Determining the impact of vague and block-billed entries was one of the main issues presented to the Federal District Court of Michigan in Trustees of the Detroit Carpenters Fringe Benefit Funds v. Andrus Acoustical, Inc. 11-CV-14656 (Dist. Court. E.D. Mich. 2018). The attorney fees at issue stem from a complex multi-year ERISA litigation case in which the plaintiffs’ attorney, Mr. Walter Fisher, billed 2,595 hours resulting in legal fees of $480,130.50. ERISA requires the defendant to pay reasonable attorney’s fees and costs of the action. The defendants sought to reduce Mr. Fisher’s fees arguing that his billing records contain prohibited block billing and vague entries that provided the Court with insufficient information on which to base a finding of reasonableness.

Initially, the Court made very clear that a line-by-line review of Mr. Fisher’s fees was not required in order to determine reasonableness. Instead, the Court found precedent supporting the proposition that a court can rely on estimates based on its “overall sense of a suit” when determining the reasonableness of attorney fees. Fox v. Vice, 563 U.S. 826, 838 (2011). Furthermore, the Court applied the standard set by the sixth circuit:

“The key requirement for an award of attorney fees is that `[t]he documentation offered in support of the hours charged must be of sufficient detail and probative value to enable the court to determine with a high degree of certainty that such hours were actually and reasonably expended in the prosecution of the action.’” Imwalle v. Reliance Medical Products, Inc., 515 F.3d 531, 553 (6th Cir. 2008).

Applying the Imwalle standard, the Court found Mr. Fisher billed a number of one-line entries for eight- and ten-hour days that did not appear on their face to fully justify the time billed. For example, Mr. Fisher billed 120 hours preparing a motion for partial summary judgment with the following terse entries:

3/05/2013/WBF: Work on brief facts. 8.00 3/06/2013/WBF: Continue working on facts for summary judgment motion. 8.00 3/07/2013/WBF: Continue working on facts for summary Judgment motion. 8.00 3/08/2013/WBF: Continue working on facts for summary Judgment motion. 8.00 3/18/2013/WBF: Work on brief. 8.00 3/19/2013/WBF: Work on brief. 9.00 3/20/2013/WBF: Work on brief. 8.00

The Court concluded that “multiple blocks of 8 or 9 round hours with such a vague descriptor leaves too much uncertainty as to whether the task was performed with reasonable diligence and efficiency.” Similarly, the Court also found Mr. Fisher’s block-billed entries as problematic. Mr. Fisher combined numerous tasks adding up to extensive hours to which the Court found was further support for the unreasonableness of Mr. Fisher’s fees. Ultimately, the Court held that the vague and block-billed entries were insufficient billing entries and, as a result, render 15% ($72,019.57) of Mr. Fisher’s fees as unreasonable.

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