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Category: Fee Reduction / Fee Denial

Judge Slams Fee Request in Civil Rights Case

September 15, 2017

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by P.J. D’Annunzio, “Judge Slams Lawyer, Equating Fee Request to ‘Attempted Bank Robbery’,” reports that a federal judge has taken Luzerne County attorney Cynthia L. Pollick to task for what the judge called "outlandish" fee requests and "inflammatory conduct" in a civil rights case.  In a lengthy 136-page rebuke, U.S. District Judge Matthew W. Brann of the Middle District of Pennsylvania chastised Pollick over her fee petition for nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in a decade-long case that settled for $25,000.

"Sad to say, after 10 years of protracted and unnecessarily contentious litigation, it appears that all plaintiff's counsel, Cynthia L. Pollick, esquire, has managed to accomplish is disrespecting this court as an institution and embarrassing herself in the eyes of many of its constituents," Brann wrote in his opinion.  But Brann wasn't finished there.  He went on to say Pollick's fee request "felt more like an attempted bank robbery than a genuine effort to recover a reasonable fee bill."

He continued: "Ms. Pollick's fee petition is 'mind boggling' and 'outrageously excessive.'  In fact, it is more than that.  The vast majority of Ms. Pollick's entries are larded with excreta unbecoming of any attorney in this district (and certainly unbillable to a client under any stretch of the imagination)."

Brann said in his opinion that Pollick "has not only failed to live up to her duty as an officer of this court—she has, as on numerous prior occasions, thumbed her nose at it.  Such defiance ceases today."  Specifically, Brann took issue, among other things, with the layout of Pollick's fee request.

"That Ms. Pollick submitted her fee bill without weeding out improper entries is grounds alone to deny it and impose sanctions," he said.  "That shortcoming here is not one that can be ameliorated by careful, line-by-line revisions.  I attempted to give Ms. Pollick the benefit of the doubt and pursue such an approach at first.  However, I soon discovered that this method was fool's errand: Ms. Pollick's entries are so inappropriate, vague, and duplicative that nearly every one of her thousands of entries needs to be eliminated or refined."

Judge Reduces Fees, Offers Primer on Legal Billing

September 13, 2017

A recent New York Law Journal story by Jason Grant, “Judge Slashes Fees, Offers Primer on Billing, in Cookbook Case,” reports that a New York federal judge has more than halved attorney fees due to an Ethiopian cookbook author who was wrongly sued for copyright infringement, finding that her defense counsel billed "excessive" hours for often straightforward work.

In July, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan of the Eastern District of New York lambasted the plaintiff, author of a different Ethiopian cookbook, for bringing "unreasonable" claims in Schleifer v. Berns, 17-cv-1649. And he awarded an as-yet-undetermined amount of attorney fees to the defendant.

Cogan turned his sights to the defendant's counsel.  He criticized Berns' lawyers at Kushnirsky Gerber, calling their requested fees "excessive" and at times "redundant," and he chopped their itemized request for $29,365 in attorney fees down to $13,055 in attorney fees (plus $316.15 in costs).  He went through the categories and tasks billed, point by point, while explaining why the hours were often too high.  Underlying his reasoning was the notion—as explained in the July dismissal decision—that the plaintiff had brought a particularly flimsy action.

"The number of hours expended [by Kushnirsky Gerber]—83.9 hours—is too many in light of the weakness of plaintiff's case and counsel's experience with copyright cases," Cogan wrote before analyzing the amounts billed.  He also said, "the court continues to be guided by the overarching purposes of the Copyright Act, that is, compensation and deterrence," and noted that "the test is whether the plaintiff 'spen[t] the minimum necessary to litigate the case effectively,'" quoting Simmons v. N.Y. City Transit Auth., 575 F.3d 170, 174 (2d Cir. 2009).

Cogan wrote that, "First, it seems inherently excessive and redundant that defendant [counsel at Kushnirsky Gerber] expended 6.5 hours drafting the pre-motion conference letter in anticipation of the motion to dismiss, 33.7 hours on the motion to dismiss itself, and then 19 hours on the reply brief, for a total of 59.2 hours."

"The minimum necessary hours to have effectively litigated the motion to dismiss in this case cannot be nearly 60 hours when the case was so patently deficient," he continued, then added, "The research necessary to draft the pre-motion conference letter should certainly have transferred to the motion to dismiss and reply.  With much of the legwork already done ... the motion itself should not have taken more than 10 to 15 hours."

Continuing his breakdown, Cogan also wrote that "even though plaintiff filed an amended complaint after defendant filed her motion to dismiss, the changes to the amended complaint were so minimal that the court in fact saw no need to reinitiate motion practice.  Accordingly, the application for 19 collective hours on the reply is excessive."  In the end, Cogan ruled that "no more than 25 hours" total should be allotted to time spent on the pre-motion conference letter, motion to dismiss and reply.

He also wrote that "it is similarly unreasonable that counsel spent 3.5 hours conducting a 'Preliminary Case and Pleadings Review,'" when the complaint was only seven pages.  "Nor is it clear from the itemization which portions of time were preliminary 'case review' and which were 'pleadings review.'  Because the itemization fails to apprise the court properly … the court will not allow fees for this task," Cogan continued, adding, "Nor will the court permit fees for 1.2 hours of 'court correspondence,' as the only court correspondence on the docket (apart from the pre-motion conference letters) is a barely one-page letter asking the court to adjourn the initial status conference."

Cogan concluded by writing that Kushnirsky Gerber's final category of billing, 12 hours for preparing its fees application to him, was also too many.  "Half of the application is a general recitation of counsel's qualifications and a description of their firm and cases, and counsel's declarations … The remainder of the fee request includes the printouts of the itemizations and billing records, counsel's resumes, defendant's own declaration and her documented expenses, all of which would have (or certainly should have) been collated and put together by support staff," he wrote.

Judge Denies Fee Request, Refers Matter to Ethics Board

September 6, 2017

A recent Legal Intelligencer story by Max Mitchell, “Judge Tosses $1M Fee Request, Refers Matter to Ethics Board,” reports that a Scranton attorney who recovered $125,000 for his client in a bad-faith case wanted $1.12 million in fees, costs and interest, but the presiding judge has instead awarded his firm nothing and referred the case to the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

U.S. District Judge Malachy E. Mannion of the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued an order chiding attorneys Michael Pisanchyn and Marsha Lee Albright over their handling of the case Clemens v. New York Central Mutual Fire Insurance, and saying their request for fees and costs was "outrageous and abusively excessive."

Mannion's 100-page opinion went line-by-line through the request, slashing billed fees he deemed vague, duplicative and excessive.  Mannion also took issue with how the firm recreated its timesheets, saying that, while recreating timesheets is allowable if the attorneys did not make them contemporaneously, a number of the entries appeared to be based on guesswork.

Mannion ended his opinion by saying that, "given the conduct of the plaintiff's counsel and the exorbitant request for fees in this case, a copy of this memorandum will be referred to the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for their independent determination of whether disciplinary action should be taken against attorney Pisanchyn and/or attorney Albright."

Pisanchyn, the name partner of Pisanchyn Law Firm, said that, while he tried the case, he had not been involved in preparing the attorney fees petition.  However, he said, both he and Albright conducted themselves according to the Rules of Professional Conduct.

"I believe that either no action will be taken, or if a complaint is opened, it will be dismissed," Pisanchyn said.  He added he did not think the fees were unreasonable, since the case had been litigated for nearly nine years.  "The defendants took the position of a scorched earth litigation, and we had to go toe-to-toe with them every step of the way," he said.  "I certainly tried the case to the jury. I didn't try the case to the judge.  The jury obviously liked my presentation and obviously thought it was effective."

According to Mannion, plaintiff Bernie Clemens' bad-faith claims came before a jury in November 2015, and ended with a $100,000 award.  The defendants had settled Clemens' uninsured motorist claim for $25,000.  When it came to the attorney fees, according to Mannion, the plaintiff's attorneys sought $48,050 for their work on the UIM claim, $827,515 for working on the bad-faith claim and $27,090 for preparing the fee petition, for a total of $902,655 in fees.  Except for awarding $4,986 in interest, Mannion denied the requests entirely.

"In addition to the unconscionable number of vague entries which had been billed for (or more accurately guessed about) by the plaintiff's counsel, there also appear to be a number of duplicative entries in the bad faith time logs for which no explanation is provided," Mannion said.  Mannion said one of the most "egregious" requests included billing 562 hours for trial preparation, with the plaintiff's attorneys entering between 20 and 22 hours per day on some days.

"If counsel did nothing else for eight hours a day, every day, this would mean that counsel spent approximately 70 days doing nothing but preparing for the trial in this matter—a trial in which the only issue was whether the defendant had committed bad faith in its handling of the UIM claim; a trial which consisted of a total of four days of substantive testimony; a trial which involved only five witnesses; a trial during which trial counsel had to be repeatedly admonished for not being prepared because he was obviously unfamiliar with the Federal Rules of Evidence, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the rulings of this court," Mannion said.  "For this, the plaintiff's counsel are billing $196,700."

Creditor Questions Fees in La Paloma Bankruptcy

August 30, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Rick Archer, “O’Melveny Blasted for $2.6M Fee Bid in La Paloma Chapter 11,reports that the senior creditor of California-based power producer La Paloma Generating Co. LLC objected to the legal fees submitted by the producer’s former counsel O'Melveny & Myers LLP, calling the $2.6 million request “exorbitant.”   LNV Corp. called for O'Melveny’s request for fees for its seven months of work on the case to be cut by more than a third, saying it was “bewildered” by how much O'Melveny was asking for compared to the progress made on the case during its tenure.

“This amount is exorbitant in light of the fact that (i) this is not a complicated case, (ii) there were virtually no contested hearings held while O’Melveny was debtors’ counsel, and (iii) the debtors made no progress towards exiting these cases during O’Melveny’s tenure,” it said.

The four-unit power plant sought Chapter 11 protection on Dec. 6, saying it had been driven into the red by price competition from alternative energy sources and difficulty in meeting California's demands for payments on carbon emissions under the state's cap-and-trade program to combat climate change.  In late July, the company said it had settled a control dispute with LNV and that a confirmation hearing on its $524 million Chapter 11 plan was scheduled for Oct. 12.

O’Melveny had asked for approximately $2.6 million for fees and expenses incurred between Dec. 6 and June 30, when it was replaced as counsel by Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and Richards Layton & Finger LLP.

LNV asked that the fee be reduced by at least $793,000, saying the firm submitted more than 1,300 excessive or unjustified hours.  It said this included 470 hours in fee applications, well exceeding the standard of 5 percent of all time billed for applications.

“Work related to the plan and disclosure statement was entirely wasteful, as O’Melveny never filed a plan and disclosure statement or even shared a draft with LNV,” it said.  “And the time spent on the use of cash collateral is indefensible given that there was never a contested hearing on the use of cash collateral or any related dispute that wasn’t swiftly resolved.”

LNV counsel Thomas E. Lauria said in a phone interview that while he usually considers fee disputes a “sideshow” in bankruptcy cases, in this case the large fee and the lack of benefits for La Paloma required a response.  “It’s unfortunate we find ourselves in the extraordinary situation that there are issues here we cannot ignore,” he said.

The case is In re: La Paloma Generating Co. LLC et al., case number 1:16-bk-12700, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.

Seventh Circuit Cuts Fee Award in Half

August 18, 2017

A recent NLJ story by Amanda Bronstad, “Fees in Class Action Over Moldy Washing Machines Nearly Halved,” reports that a federal appeals court has slashed plaintiffs' attorney fees by nearly half in a class action settlement over defective washing machines — but the firms could have taken a bigger hit.  A much bigger hit.

The opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reduced the fees in a 2015 settlement from $4.8 million to $2.7 million.  The suit alleged that front-loading washing machines made by Whirlpool Corp. and sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. from 2004 to 2006 had a defect in their central control units and grew mold inside them.  Sears estimated that the settlement, which resolved just the claims over the control units in Kenmore and Whirlpool brands, was worth about $900,000.

The Seventh Circuit found a federal magistrate judge's reasoning "questionable" when she boosted the award 1.75 times what lawyers charged for their work.  "The judge's reasoning was that the case was unusually complex and had served the public interest and that the attorneys had obtained an especially favorable settlement for the class," wrote Judge Richard Posner.  "The district court, comparing the hourly rates sought by class counsel with the complexity of their work, concluded that for the most part the case wasn't very complex — it was just about whether or not Sears had sold defective washing machines.  This conclusion leaves us puzzled about the court's decision nevertheless to allow a multiplier."

What the Seventh Circuit did not do, however, is find any problem awarding fees greater than the benefits to class members, despite two of its own precedents in 2014 cautioning courts to presume that such fees are unreasonable.  Defense attorneys insisted that the fee award disregarded those precedents — Pearson v. NBTY and Redman v. RadioShack — and that the plaintiffs' attorneys should get no more than $900,000 given that 95 percent of the class won't get anything.

Yet such a presumption, Posner clarified, wasn't "irrebuttable."  He noted the "extensive time and effort that class counsel had devoted to a difficult case against a powerful corporation entitled them to a fee in excess of the benefits of the class."  But three times what class members got?  The attorneys should get what they billed for — "no more, no less," Posner wrote, remanding with directions to award $2.7 million.

Plaintiffs' attorneys, meanwhile, spent much of their appeal brief focused on the Seventh Circuit's 2015 ruling in In re Southwest Airlines Voucher Litigation, which awarded $1.6 million in fees in a coupon settlement.  But Posner's opinion never mentioned that ruling.  Sears and Whirlpool were represented by Timothy Bishop, a partner at Mayer Brown in Chicago.  In an email, both companies praised the Seventh Circuit's decision to reduce "the plaintiffs' lawyers' excessive and unreasonable fee by more than 43 percent."

Steven Schwartz of Chimicles & Tikellis in Haverford, Pennsylvania, did not respond to a request for comment.  His firm sought fees alongside five others, including Carey, Danis & Lowe in St. Louis, San Francisco's Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein and New York's Seeger Weiss.

The class actions were filed in 2006.  In 2012, the Seventh Circuit certified two classes of customers in a ruling written by Posner that ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which remanded the case in light of its ruling in Comcast v. Behrend. Posner reaffirmed the certification ruling in 2013.  Separate claims over mold against were transferred to multidistrict litigation in the Northern District of Ohio, where a federal jury issued a defense verdict in 2014.  In that case, the lawyers got $14.75 million in counsel fees and costs.

After U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Rowland of the Northern District of Illinois approved the central unit settlement last year, the attorneys sought $6 million in fees.  They claimed their lodestar — the amount they actually billed — was $3.25 million and that they deserved a 1.85 multiplier to account for their efforts in the case.

In a 55-page opinion, Rowland reduced their lodestar to $2.7 million after finding issues with some of their billing records, but multiplied the amount by 1.75 due to the novelty and complexity of the case, the success achieved and the advancement of a public interest.

"It is no exaggeration to say that this protracted nine-year litigation has concerned fees and little else," Bishop wrote in the brief for Sears and Whirlpool appealing her fee award.  "The approach taken by the district court would encourage prolonged litigation to drive up class counsel's hours with no added value to the class."

But it was the defendants, Schwartz wrote in the plaintiffs' response brief, who drove up those hours.  "The only reason why it took a decade of litigation up through the eve of trial to get the cases settled was defendants' refusal to even discuss settlement," he wrote.

The case is In re: Sears, Roebuck and Co Front-Loading Washer Products Liability Litigation, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-3554.