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Article: Cautionary Tales on Recovering Attorney Fees in the Third Circuit

April 17, 2019 | Posted in : Articles / Books, Billing Practices, Billing Record / Entries, Ethics & Professional Responsibility, Expenses / Costs, Fee Award, Fee Clause, Fee Dispute, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Jurisprudence, Fee Request, Fee Statute, Hourly Rates / Hourly Billing, Lawyering, Lodestar / Multiplier

A recent Legal Intelligencer article by Colin Wrabley and Devin Misour of Reed Smith LLP, “Cautionary Tales on Recovering Attorney Fees in the Third Circuit,” reports on a trio of appellate decisions and trial court rulings on the recovery of attorney fees in the Third Circuit.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

In the past year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has issued three precedential rulings laying down clear and strict limits on the recovery of attorney fees.  While these kinds of rulings rarely draw attention, this trio of appellate decisions and the trial court rulings they affirm should because they are emphatic reminders that courts take their duty in reviewing fee petitions and awards just as seriously as they do in any other case.  Practitioners and their clients should take heed.

The Cases

The first case we’ll discuss, Young v. Smith, 905 F.3d 229 (3d Cir. 2018), is perhaps the most glaring example of how a fee petition can go wrong.  The appellant attorney in that case represented a group of students who brought a 42 U.S.C. Section 1988 civil rights suit against a school district and a teacher.  After two trials, the lone remaining defendant (the teacher) made an offer of judgment for $25,000, which the plaintiffs accepted, and the parties’ entered a settlement agreement allowing for “reasonable attorney fees and costs as to the claims against the teacher only.”  Plaintiffs counsel proceeded to submit a petition seeking over $700,000 in fees and costs against the school district, which had won a complete defense verdict.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the district court thought the fee request excessive and issued a show cause order.  Plaintiffs counsel responded with a 44-page, single-spaced, six- or eight-point font fee petition purporting to justify the request.  That prompted, in the Third Circuit’s words, a “scathing 136-page opinion” from the district court denying all requested fees, levying a $25,000 sanction on the plaintiffs counsel, and referring counsel to the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board.

The Third Circuit affirmed.  The court of appeals focused on the problems with the plaintiffs counsel’s billing practices, noting that the “district court’s meticulous opinion paints a picture of an attorney whose attitude toward billing and the court is cavalier in the extreme and whose conduct and demeanor bear no relationship whatsoever to an attorney’s obligations to the court.”  Concluding that Section 1988 gives a district court the discretion to reject a fee petition in its entirety, the Third Circuit found that the fee petition was “not only grossly excessive and absurd, but also fraudulent.”

The second case, Clemens v. New York Central Mutual Fire Insurance, 903 F.3d 396 (3d Cir. 2018), involved a fee award under Pennsylvania’s bad faith statute.  There, after settling an uninsured motorist claim for $25,000 and obtaining a jury verdict of $100,000 in punitive damages on the bad faith claim, plaintiffs counsel submitted a fee petition seeking in excess of $900,000 in fees and costs.  Here again, the district court scrutinized counsel’s request, which resulted in a 100-page opinion rejecting the petition in its entirety.  The district court reviewed every one of counsel’s time entries and found that 87 percent of the hours billed had to be disallowed as “vague, duplicative, unnecessary or inadequately supported by documentary evidence.”

On appeal, the Third Circuit found that the denial of this petition was not an abuse of discretion either.  Of note, the attorney kept no contemporaneous records of his time, so everything had to be recreated after the fact for purposes of the petition.  And when the attorney did recreate those records, he did so largely with one-word explanations, such as “other,” “communicate,” “analysis/strategy, or “review/analyze,” with no other explanation.  The court of appeals also highlighted the “staggering 562 hours” billed for trial preparation, which amounted to 70 straight eight-hour days of preparation for a four-day trial with only five witnesses.  On this record, the Third Circuit held that the district court was well within its discretion to reject the fee petition in its entirety because it was “outrageously excessive.”

The third case involved an award of attorney fees to defendants after the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed a case pursuant to Rule 41(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  In Carroll v. E One, 893 F.3d 139 (3d Cir. 2018), the plaintiffs alleged that they had suffered hearing loss caused by fire sirens manufactured by the defendant.  But the defendant’s investigation and discovery revealed that the plaintiffs—some of whom did not even know that they were parties to a lawsuit until after the case was filed—had asserted time-barred claims, and at least one of the plaintiffs did not suffer from hearing loss attributable to noise exposure.  Armed with this information, the defendant’s counsel sought voluntary dismissal with prejudice.  The district court concluded that the plaintiffs could not voluntarily dismiss the action without prejudice—as they had tried to do—and instead dismissed the case with prejudice and awarded fees and costs to the defendants.

The Third Circuit affirmed, finding that dismissal with prejudice and the award of fees and costs was appropriate given the plaintiffs’ “failure to perform a meaningful pre-suit investigation,” coupled with counsel’s “repeated practice of bringing claims and dismissing them with prejudice after inflicting substantial costs on the opposing party and the judicial system.”  Addressing plaintiffs’ pre-filing investigation, the court of appeals noted that even a cursory review of the evidence or an interview with the potential plaintiffs would have revealed the problems with their case.  Having failed to do so, the court concluded that the “exceptional circumstances” warranted an award of fees and costs.

The Takeaways

If you’re a practitioner, you may be thinking, “I’ve never filed a fee petition like the ones in these cases” or “I’ve never conducted such a slipshod pre-filing investigation” of claims I’ve filed.  So, why do these cases—and understanding how they were decided and why—matter to me?  There are plenty of reasons.

First, the legal principles outlined in each of these cases hinged on a district court’s broad discretion in the context of attorney fees.  Whether it is a denial of fees sought—as in Young and Clemens—or an award of fees in the Rule 41 context—as in Carroll—it is important to remember that the courts have a wide berth in deciding how much, if any, fees should be awarded.  This is equally true before the trial court in the first instance and on appellate review.  Litigants therefore must keep this in mind when preparing and filing a fee petition to avoid any unwanted surprises once the court explores into the substance of the request.

Second, when the court (either trial or appellate) does dig into that substance, no one wants their fee petition to become the next teachable moment.  It should go without saying that parties seeking fees and costs must be scrupulous about how they keep time, record it and present it to the court.  On a practical level, this means that counsel and their clients should file user-friendly fee petitions that allow the court to quickly determine what was done (consistent with the attorney-client privilege), how long it took and at what cost.  From that, a “lodestar” fee calculation—based on a reasonable rate and a reasonable amount of time worked, which is how federal courts determine fee awards—easily follows.  As the Third Circuit reminded in Clemens, while courts “have never strictly required that fee petitions be supported by contemporaneous records … they have long been ‘the preferred practice.’” Needless to say, avoiding six- or eight-point fonts in petitions is also prudent.

Third and above all else, these cases serve as an important reminder that—perhaps contrary to conventional wisdom—courts can, and often do, spend significant time and resources on reviewing fee petitions.  The trial court opinions in Young and Clemens tipped the scales at 100-plus pages and reflected a substantial investment of judicial energy.  And the Third Circuit decisions discussed above—each published, one argued orally—were relatively extensive and reflected the same commitment of resources.  In other words, don’t hope or expect courts to gloss over questionable or deficient fee requests.

Accordingly, while these cases may be outliers, they offer important lessons about what counsel can do to make life easier for the courts tasked with reviewing even innocuous filings (like fee petitions).  By taking steps to carefully consider how courts will receive petitions, counsel can help to save judicial resources and ultimately better serve their clients.

Colin Wrabley is a Reed Smith partner and a member of the firm’s appellate group. He has experience counseling and representing clients in litigations and substantive legal issues before state and federal courts across the country.  Devin Misour is an associate at the firm and a member of the appellate group.  He focuses his practice on a wide array of substantive legal matters including False Claims Act, regulatory matters and issues involving state and federal laws.