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Category: Billing Record / Entries

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."

Tenth Circuit Affirms In Camera Only Review Rule of Billing Records

August 29, 2017

A recent Law 360 story by Christine Powell, “Tribal Co. Can Keep Atty Fees in $3M Gov’t Contract Row,” reports that the Tenth Circuit cemented an attorneys’ fee award given to one of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe's businesses and its leadership after escaping Team Systems International LLC’s lawsuit alleging that they breached an agreement for developing government contracts by failing to pay it nearly $3 million.

In a brief, unanimous ruling, a panel of three of the circuit court’s judges affirmed an Oklahoma district court’s award of $29,234 in attorneys’ fees to Fort Sill Apache Industries, its president and CEO Jeff Haozous and its board of directors as the prevailing party on TSI’s claims.

The attorneys’ fee award came after the Tenth Circuit last year separately affirmed the dismissal of TSI’s allegations that FSAI breached an agreement under which TSI supported FSAI’s work on government construction contracts by failing to fully pay it, concluding that TSI had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

When appealing the attorneys’ fee award, TSI had argued that the lower court abused its discretion by conducting an in camera review of certain unredacted billing and time records because TSI could not meaningfully challenge the reasonableness of the fee bid, but the panel rejected that contention.

“This court has held that a court reviewing a fee request did not abuse its discretion in denying the responding party access to the itemized time records and conducting in camera review of those records,” the panel said.  “Here, TSI did not pursue other avenues of discovery or contend on appeal that alternative discovery would have been inadequate.  Moreover, TSI has not shown that the district court’s reasons for its ruling were inadequate.”

The case is Team Sys. International v. Haozous et al, case number 16-6277, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

In-House Counsel Can and Should Collect Attorney Fees

August 21, 2017

A recent Corporate Counsel article by Daniel K. Wiig, “In-House Counsel Can and Should Collect Attorney Fees,” writes about attorney fee entitlement for in-house counsel work.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

When weighing his post-Senate career options, then-U.S. Sen. Howard "Buck" McKeon rejected an offer from a prominent law firm, opting not to "live his life in six-minute increments."  Indeed, it is with fair certainty to state a top reason lawyers in private practice transition to in-house is to escape the billable hour.  And while the imminent death of the billable hour may have been highly exaggerated (again and again), it remains the predominate metric for private-practice attorneys handling commercial work to track their time and collect fees.

Numerous reports suggest the in-house lawyer is "rising," with companies opting to retain more and more legal work within their law departments, and decreasing the amount of work they disseminate to outside counsel.  Sources cite various reasons from cost to the intimate knowledge in-house lawyers possess regarding their employer vis-à-vis outside counsel.  Whatever the genesis, it reasons that in-house lawyers morphing into the role traditionally held by outside lawyers should assume all such components of the role, which, when possible, can include recovering attorney fees for actual legal work performed, as noted in Video Cinema Films v. Cable News Network, (S.D.N.Y. March 30, 2003), (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 3, 2004), and other federal and state courts.

Recovering attorney fees is that extra win for the victorious litigant, whether provided by statute or governed by contract.  It leaves the client's bank account intact (at least partially) and gives the prevailing attorney additional gloating rights.  For the in-house lawyer, recovering attorney fees can also occasionally turn the legal department from a cost center to a quasi-profit center.  In-house lawyers can and should collect attorney fees.

To be clear, recovering attorney fees is not available for in-house lawyers functioning in the traditional role of overseeing outside counsel's work.  As noted in Kevin RA v. Orange Village, (N.D. Ohio May 4, 2017), a court will not award fees to in-house lawyers that are redundant, i.e., those which reflect work performed by outside counsel.  Indeed, when in-house counsel is the advisee of litigation status rather than drafter of the motion or attends the settlement conference as one with authority to settle rather than to advocate more advantageous settlement terms, she functions as the client rather than lawyer, of which attorney fee are unavailable.

Unlike their counterparts in private practice, in-house counsel do not have set billing rates, although an exception may exist if internal policies permit the legal department to invoice the department that generated the legal matter.  Even in such a situation, as with law firm billing rates, the actual fees/rates are considered by the court but not determinative in awarding fees, as noted in Tallitsch v. Child Support Services, 926 P2d. 143 (Colo. App. 1996).  In determining what constitutes an appropriate and reasonable attorney fee award, courts frequently apply the "reasonably presumptive fee" or the "lodestar" method.  Under the lodestar method, as explained in Earth Flag v. Alamo Flag, 154 F.Supp.2d 663 (S.D.N.Y. 2001), fees are determined by "multiplying the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation by a reasonable hourly rate."

Reasonableness is a question of fact for the trial court.  In determining a reasonable hourly rate, federal courts look to those reflected in the federal district in which they sit, while state courts consider the prevailing rates in their respective city and geographical area.  Courts will also consider other factors such as the complexity of the case, the level of expertise required to litigate the matter, and the fees clients in similar situations would be willing to pay outside counsel in determining the appropriate hourly rate for the in-house lawyer.  Determining whether the tasks performed by the in-house lawyer were reasonable is left to the court's discretion.

Recognizing legal departments do not necessary operate in lockstep fashion as a law firm, courts will consider the "blended" rate in the lodestar calculation.  Here, a court will combine or "blend" the reasonable rates for associates, partners, counsel and paralegals in their locale to devise the appropriate hourly rate for the in-house lawyer.  The premise is in-house lawyers generally take on less defined roles in litigating a matter than their counterparts in private practice, performing a combination of litigation tasks that may be more clearly delineated among law firm staff.

In order to successfully receive an award of attorney fees, the in-house lawyer must maintain a record akin to a law firm's billing sheet of her time spent on the matter, as reflected in Cruz v. Local Union No. 3 of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, 34 F.3d 1148 (2d Cir. 1994).  Consequently, an excel spreadsheet, or similar document, enumerating the time and task, with as much detail as possible, is required to sustain a court's scrutiny in looking for tasks that were "excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary," as noted in Clayton v. Steinagal, (D. Utah Dec. 19, 2012).  Moreover, the in-house attorneys who worked on the matter must execute affidavits attesting to the accuracy of their time records, and include the same in their moving papers.

As the legal profession changes and corporate legal departments retain more of their work, in-house should take advantage of statutory or contractual attorney fees provisions, notably for the litigation they handle internally.  In so doing, the in-house lawyer may find a number of benefits, such as approval to commence litigation that they may have otherwise shied away from because of the possibility to recoup attorney fees and the benefit of essentially obtaining payment for the legal work performed.

Daniel K. Wiig is in-house counsel to Municipal Credit Union in New York, where he assists in the day-to-day management of the legal affairs of the nearly $3 billion financial institution.  He is also an adjunct law professor at St. John's University School of Law.  Wiig successfully moved for in-house attorney fees in Municipal Credit Union v. Queens Auto Mall, 126 F. Supp. 3d 290 (E.D.N.Y. 2015).

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...

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