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Judge Rejects Math Error Claim in Attorney Fee Request

March 19, 2020 | Posted in : Billing Practices, Billing Record / Entries, Fee Award, Fee Reduction, Fee Request, Hourly Rates / Hourly Billing, Prevailing Party Issues

A recent Law 360 story by Pete Brush, “NY Judge Swats Down Sanford Heisler Math Error Claim,” reports that a Manhattan federal judge rejected a claim by the firm representing a former Columbia University professor in a sexual harassment trial that she made a math error in slashing its fee request by 75% to $1.34 million — a quick smackdown that followed a request for more money.  Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP's fee quibble, filed Wednesday, came after a bitter trial and aftermath in which its client, former Columbia finance scholar Enrichetta Ravina, won $750,000 of damages after prevailing against the Ivy League school and one of its professors, Geert Bekaert, on claims of retaliation.  Ravina's $30 million suit also brought claims of discrimination and harassment that a civil jury rejected.

On March 6 U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams slashed the firm's initial request for nearly $5.9 million of fees to $1.34 million, citing excessively billed hours and duplicative staffing, vague billing records and the fact that Ravina only prevailed on a single count of 22 brought before the trial jury.  "In sum, the court reduced Ravina's hours by seventy-five percent total: thirty-five percent to account for the excessive hours expended and inefficient staffing, five percent to account for the vague time entries and block billing, and thirty-five percent to account for Ravina's lack of success on her claims based on Columbia's conduct," Judge Abrams wrote.

But according to a filing from Sanford Heisler, Judge Abrams should have multiplied the three percentage reductions through one another.  "This results in an overall reduction of 59.8625%. (This is calculated as follows: 1 –(0.65 * 0.65 * 0.95) = 0.598625," the firm said.

That, it asserted, would have led to a lower reduction and a higher fee of about $2.15 million.  Not so, according to Judge Abrams.  "It was well within this court’s discretion to calculate Ravina’s total reduction in hours by adding the three categories of reductions together," the judge wrote.  In her March 6 order Judge Abrams used the word “sum” — which implies addition — in her findings to arrive at the “total” 75% reduction.  Judge Abrams said her slashing of the fee award was "not the result of inadvertence or mathematical error."