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Category: Billing Practices

Small Law Firm Accused of Overbilling in Bribery Case

June 19, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Kevin Penton, “Cognizant Says Firm Overbilled It In Ex-CLO’s Bribery Case,” reports that a small New York law firm is facing allegations that it overbilled Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. for representing the technology consulting company's former chief legal officer in several underlying cases related to an alleged foreign bribery scheme.  Jeremy Bohrer and his namesake firm charged Cognizant $23.3 million for representing Steven Schwartz from January 2019 to last April, outpacing co-counsel Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP's nearly $20 million bill for the same period, despite the smaller firm lacking expertise in white collar defense and having a total of four lawyers, according to the complaint by the company in the Southern District of New York.

The complaint says that Bohrer and his firm, Bohrer PLLC, charged Cognizant a 600% markup for document reviews conducted by contract attorneys, that the attorney hired vendors in which he has an ownership stake to work on the Schwartz cases without disclosing the conflict, and that Cognizant was charged millions of dollars for work that was either not performed as invoiced or that was performed at a fraction of the cost of what was billed, according to the complaint.

Cognizant told the court that it was contractually obligated to pay Bohrer and his firm after Schwartz retained them in July 2018 to work together with Paul Weiss — and later Gibbons PC — on several related matters connected to the alleged scheme.  But Cognizant has balked at the fees charged by Bohrer and his firm, noting that they are nearly double the $13 million that Jones Day and a smaller firm charged Cognizant for representing Gordon Coburn, the company's former president and Schwartz's co-defendant in the criminal proceeding.

"Defendants' conduct is unethical, unconscionable, criminal, and has caused Cognizant significant harm," the complaint read.  "Even though Cognizant was contractually required to advance fees and costs for Schwartz's defense, Bohrer and Bohrer PLLC took advantage of that obligation in the extreme."

Federal prosecutors in February 2019 accused Schwartz and Coburn of conspiracy and multiple Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations for allegedly approving a $2 million bribe to secure a construction permit for the IT company's campus in Chennai, India, in 2014.

Cognizant wants the Southern District of New York to order Bohrer and his firm to repay all the money they have charged the company, according to Wednesday's complaint. The company is also seeking punitive damages, pre- and post-judgment interest, and its attorney fees and costs, according to the complaint.

In a statement, Bohrer blasted the legal action.  "This is a malicious lawsuit filled with outrageous and false allegations and represents another attempt to interfere with Mr. Schwartz's defense against a prosecution that should never have been brought," Bohrer said in a statement.  "Bohrer PLLC is honored to represent Steven Schwartz and will remain focused on his defense."

Lack of Jurisdiction Dooms Billing Suit Against K&L Gates

June 7, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Justin Wise, “Lack of Jurisdiction Dooms Billing Suit Against K&L Gates,” reports that a federal judge has dismissed a health center's lawsuit alleging K&L Gates LLP and one other firm engaged in deceptive billing practices during a South Carolina bankruptcy action, ruling the lawsuit is not sufficiently related to a bankruptcy matter to justify federal jurisdiction.

In a three-page order handed down, U.S. District Judge Jill N. Parrish rejected arguments from Chicora Life Center, a Utah-based subsidiary of Chicora Garden Holdings, that the court could hear the dispute since it arose and was related to Chicora Life's prior bankruptcy.  Federal courts only have jurisdiction over such cases when it can affect the administration of an estate, Judge Parrish wrote, something that's impossible in this matter since the bankruptcy proceeding was terminated in 2017.

"The outcome of this action cannot 'conceivably have any effect on the estate being administered in bankruptcy' because the bankruptcy proceedings terminated over two years before this action was filed," Judge Parrish wrote.  "In short, this court lacks jurisdiction because this lawsuit cannot have any impact 'on the handling and administration of the bankruptcy estate,' nor can it affect 'the estate of the debtor' in a closed bankruptcy case."

Douglas Durbano, a Utah lawyer and developer who manages Chicora Life and also served as counsel for Chicora Life in the current case, told Law360 that he'd seek to move forward with the claims in a different venue.  "The matter will be refiled in a court that does have jurisdiction," he said, adding that he's "studying" possible new venues based on the ruling and previous court admissions from the firms.

Chicora Life Center sued K&L Gates and South Carolina law firm McCarthy Reynolds & Penn LLC in August, alleging that its attorneys engaged in, among other things, fraudulent billing practices and malpractice during its representation in a South Carolina bankruptcy proceeding.  According to the lawsuit, K&L Gates used several tactics to increase its billing in the Chapter 11 proceeding against Charleston County over a lease termination dispute.  The billing practices resulted in about $1.6 million in fees between May and October 2016.

The health center also alleged that actions from K&L Gates and McCarthy Reynolds attorneys caused the bankruptcy court to approve a "cramdown" plan against its own interests.  The "cramdown" plan called for the county to purchase a Chicora Life property to satisfy its obligations to creditors, a scheme that it claimed led to a $3 million tax liability, according to Friday's ruling.

In a court filing this year, K&L Gates said it secured an "extremely favorable" settlement for Chicora Life where Charleston County agreed to purchase the property in question for $30 million.  It also said a fee examiner appointed by the bankruptcy court determined the firm was entitled to all of its requested fees.

Article: Actual and Necessary: A Guide to Keeping Time So You Get Paid

June 6, 2021

A recent ABI Journal article by Brittany B. Falabella and Allison P. Klena, “Actual and Necessary: A Guide to Keeping Time So You Get Paid,” reports on good billing practices in large Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Billing time is one of the most dreaded aspects of private practice in any field of law, but not because it is hard or overly time-consuming. The extra step of recording discrete, detailed time entries is much more than an annoyance. For bank­ruptcy practitioners employed under §§ 327, 1103 and 1051 of the Bankruptcy Code and certain credi­tors’ counsel,2 it is a step that cannot be done in a sloppy, haphazard way — at least, if the attorney wants to be paid.

In non-bankruptcy areas of practice, an attorney may have to explain generic, unclear and blocked billing to a client. However, a bankruptcy practi­tioner’s bills are subject not only to this review, but also to that of multiple other parties, including the U.S. Trustee’s Office, debtors, committees, interest-holders and, most importantly, the court, before the practitioner will be awarded compensation under §§ 330 and/or 331. Developing proper billing habits from the start will pay for itself — literally.

Although most new attorneys who enter an established bankruptcy practice will have standard forms for fee applications, taking the time to under­stand the law informing a court’s analysis is the first step in understanding how to effectively and proper­ly keep time for easy approval. The first part of this article discusses the Code sections and cases that likely apply to every fee application. The second part discusses the common pitfalls that can result in a court reducing a fee request, and easy and practi­cal tips to avoid them. By making proper billing a habit rather than a dreaded task, the foundation will be laid to get paid in full.

The Laws of Getting Paid: Section 330 of the Bankruptcy Code

Under § 330, after notice and a hearing an attor­ney may be awarded (1) “reasonable compensa­tion for actual, necessary services rendered” and (2) “reimbursement for actual, necessary expens­es.”4 On the court’s own motion or that of any party-in-interest, a court can, however, reduce the com­pensation requested.5 In making the determination of whether and how much to reduce a request, the court is directed to

consider the nature, the extent, and the value of such services, taking into account all rel­evant factors, including —

(A) the time spent on such services;

(B) the rates charged for such services;

(C) whether the services were neces­sary to the administration of, or ben­eficial at the time at which the service was rendered toward the completion of, a case under this title;

(D) whether the services were per­formed within a reasonable amount of time commensurate with the com­plexity, importance, and nature of the problem, issue, or task addressed;

(E) with respect to a professional per­son, whether the person is board cer­tified or otherwise has demonstrated the skill and experience in the bank­ruptcy field; and

(F) whether the compensation is rea­sonable based on the customary com­pensation charged by comparably skilled practitioners in cases other than cases under this title.6

In addition, the court “shall not allow compensation for — (i) unnecessary duplication of services; or (ii) services that were not (I) reasonably likely to benefit the debtor’s estate, or (II) necessary to the administration of the case.”

The Lodestar Method

The lodestar method is a court’s starting point for deter­mining whether fees billed were reasonable. The “lodestar” equals a reasonable amount of time for the matter multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate.8 Reasonable time is the time that the court believes a billing attorney should have spent on the matter. Then, a “reasonable hourly rate” is calculated with reference to a billing attorney’s experience and skill, as well as prevailing rates in the community for similar services provided by reasonably comparable attorneys. The sum (i.e., the lodestar) may then be adjusted to account for the specific demands of the case, often with reference to some or all of the 12 Johnson factors.

The Johnson Factors

The Johnson factors are derived from the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express Inc.,9 and consist of the following: (1) the time and labor expended; (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions raised; (3) the skill required to properly perform the legal services rendered; (4) the attorney’s opportunity costs in pressing the instant litigation; (5) the customary fee for like work; (6) the attor­ney’s expectations at the outset of the litigation; (7) the time limitations imposed by the client or circumstances; (8) the amount in controversy and the results obtained; (9) the expe­rience, reputation and ability of the attorney; (10) the unde­sirability of the case within the legal community in which the suit arose; (11) the nature and length of the professional relationship between attorney and client; and (12) attorneys’ fee awards in similar cases.

However, courts have not taken a uniform approach to the Johnson factors. Some courts view the factors as already subsumed into the lodestar method,10 while others apply the lodestar method and then look to the Johnson factors to decide whether the lodestar amount should be modified.11 Still other courts consider the Johnson factors in conjunction with calculation of the lodestar.12 Although these distinctions may matter in some cases, the one- and two-step processes will often generate essentially similar results, especially given that enhancement of the lodestar is a rare occurrence.

Biggest Pitfalls and Strategies to Avoid Them

Even with an understanding of the law, unless time records are maintained in anticipation of bankruptcy court review, a practitioner will often fall into some of the pitfalls discussed below. In many cases, a simple fix can nip errors in the bud. This avoids the headache of reviewing and editing voluminous invoices at the end of a fee-application period or the end of a case, and, most importantly, permitting the court to allow fees in full and without objection.

Not Enough Detail/Excessive Billing

Vague time entries are virtually always a problem. A gen­eral, shorthand description might be easy to understand for the time-keeper doing the work and making a contemporane­ous record (it goes without saying to always keep contem­poraneous time). However, the court and other parties who analyze vague, generic time entries do not have the benefit of the billing attorney’s on-the-spot thoughts.

Time entries should be drafted with an eye toward explaining and justifying why the work was “reasonable and necessary,” and how it benefited the estate or a constituent. Entries such as “reviewed emails” are certainly insufficient, but even additional details, such as “conference with X con­cerning research and strategy” or “conference with X con­cerning pending matter related to debtor” might not provide enough detail for a court to determine whether the time was justified.14 Vague entries can cause the court to spend time attempting to decipher the context, conduct an evidentiary hearing,15 or simply deny the compensation.

While courts frequently complain that counsel have engaged in excessive billing, the heart of the issue is fre­quently that the court does not understand how the amount of time billed was “reasonable and necessary.” In other words, the billing entry was not specific or detailed enough to explain to the court that the full amount of time delegated to a task benefited the estate or was necessary to the admin­istration of the case. This issue is often remedied if detailed descriptions are crafted with an eye toward the benefit to the case as previously explained.

Vague and ambiguous entries are a common and costly mistake. No attorney, particularly a new associate, wants their entries to be the reason that the firm’s fee application is reduced or its approval delayed. Taking the time to carefully prepare time entries is essential, not optional.

Tip: Have an attorney or professional assistant who is not working on the case review the time entries. If that person cannot understand the value of the time billed or the task that was completed, more detail should be included until it becomes clear. If it becomes necessary to bill significant time to certain tasks, make sure the explanation is particularly thorough to explain the circumstances.

Block-Billing

Similar to time entries that are insufficiently detailed, time entries that are block-billed — multiple tasks com­bined in a one-time entry — do not establish for the review­er (1) how much time was spent on a particular task, or (2) whether the time spent on each task was reasonable. For example, if an attorney records 3.0 hours total for “review of a motion for approval of DIP financing; telephone call with debtor’s counsel concerning alternative financing sought; and email to client regarding financing options for debtor’s continued operation under chapter 11 and recommendation not to object to the filed DIP financing motion,” the court has no idea whether the review of the motion took 0.6 hours (presumably reasonable) or 2.7 hours (perhaps unreason­able absent additional undescribed factors). According to the U.S. Trustee’s guidelines, while block-billing is gener­ally not allowed, a single daily entry that combines de mini­mus tasks can be combined, provided that the entry does not exceed 0.5 hours.16

A consequence of block-billing is that the court may conclude that it lacks the information to trim excessive time from a particular task among those blocked, and may choose to reduce the total time billed by a discretionary percentage.17 The goal is to establish that your work was reasonable and necessary. Do not give a court an “excuse” to question the reasonableness of your time by block-billing.

Tip: Break up time entries so that each task corresponds to the amount of time spent on that task — even if the amount of time is modest. Making use of time-tracking software or timers and developing good habits can be quite helpful in mastering detailed task-billing.

Not Delegating to Proper Staff/Duplicative Billing

Whether certain tasks are properly completed by senior-level attorneys, lower-level attorneys or support staff is largely out of the control of an associate. Nevertheless, there will be times when tasks that would be more suitable for a junior-lev­el attorney must be completed by a senior attorney, or where an attorney may need to complete a task that would ordinar­ily be delegated to a staff person. Similarly, there are times when multiple attorneys must participate in the same hearing or conference, which reviewing courts often view skeptically.

In such situations, courts are more inclined to allow the “double billing” if the exigent circumstances are explained in the entry and such staffing situations are kept to a mini­mum.18 When matters are not explained or apparent from the time description, the court is left to question how the time and/or rates are reasonable and necessary.

Tip: While a junior associate might not have much con­trol over the delegation of tasks, associates typically draft the fee applications, so they should keep this issue in mind when reviewing bills and flag any issues with a supervising attorney prior to filing. A good-faith reduction for certain tasks might go a long way with the court and other parties-in-interest. At a minimum, make sure your own time is not subject to objection or reduction. If you find yourself bill­ing time to routine tasks, be sure the circumstances are fully explained in the entry.

Conclusion

Given the consequences of failing to record time properly, it is well worth the time to develop the habit ofrecording specific time entries that are separated by each task performed and that indicate that how the time spent was both reasonable and necessary. With such a “reason­able and necessary” standard as a guide, a professional can ensure that the court and other interested parties under­stand the value being added to the case and that the fees requested are fully warranted.

Block Billing Reduces Fee Award in Personal Injury Case

May 14, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Mike Curley, “After ‘Block Billing’ and ‘Paper Dump,’, Attys Net Only $786K” reports that an Arizona federal judge has awarded $786,472 to attorneys representing a man who suffered additional injuries after a fall when his insurer delayed approving surgery, down from the requested $1.04 million as a result of "block billing," a "paper dump" and other failures in their request for fees.  U.S. District Judge Susan M. Brnovich also denied Greg Jarman's request for $74,000 in expenses from American Family Insurance Co. in its entirety, saying he failed to itemize the costs and the court will not "do the hard work for him" in separating out items like clothes for one attorney and a hotel room for another.

Jarman's request for fees comes after a jury in September awarded him $4.5 million over delays in care for injuries stemming from an on-the-job fall in 2015.  The court later reduced the verdict to $2.8 million.  Jarman, who had worked at electrical company Efficient Electric Inc. for more than 10 years before his injury, experienced a severe fall on July 25, 2015, according to court documents, and a couple of weeks later he went to the hospital and was diagnosed with a shoulder sprain and put on limited activity.  Jarman's neurologist on Oct. 6 of that year recommended cervical decompression surgery, after his orthopedic surgeon called his case "urgent."

American Family wanted its own doctor, Dr. John Beghin, to examine Jarman before approving the surgery, and he agreed on Nov. 5, 2015, that surgery was necessary.  The surgery was performed five days later, and Jarman said the delay caused cognitive injuries.  In the order, Judge Brnovich reduced the total fee for several reasons, starting with Jarman's failure to comply with court rules requiring his counsel to confer with American Family's on the fees before submitting his request.

While the judge did not accept American Family's argument that Jarman isn't entitled to fees at all, she did reduce them still further, saying that there is a particularly egregious case of block billing in this case, with one of the attorneys attributing hundreds of hours of work to single line items, leaving the court unable to determine how much time was spent on specific tasks.

The request also does not contain an affidavit as to the tasks that support staff at the firms took on during the case, so the court is unable to determine if the rates for their work are reasonable, the judge wrote, adding some entries from support staff are clerical in nature.  Jarman also failed to produce evidence that his attorneys' fee rates are reasonable, the judge wrote, further warranting a reduction to the fee.  The attorney fees request also includes entry for work done relating only to dismissed defendants, the judge added

Quinn Emanuel Defends Billing Practices, Expenses

May 5, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Rachel Schart, “MiMedx Slams Quinn Emanuel Fees As 2 Other Firms Settle,” reports that MiMedx has accused Quinn Emanuel of seeking unreasonable fees, including for lawyers' luxury hotel stays and fine dining, as part of the cost of defending two former company executives who were convicted of securities fraud.  The allegation, in court papers, comes after the life sciences company settled claims with two other law firms seeking payment of fees as part of the same dispute.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP and Kobre & Kim LLP initially filed suit in New York state court on April 15 alleging MiMedx Group Inc. shirked its obligations to indemnify the firms' clients, company President William Taylor and ex-CEO Parker "Pete" Petit.  Both men were sentenced to a year in prison in February after being convicted of one of two counts each at trial.

Freshfields and Kobre & Kim said in court filings that they had settled their claims against MiMedx.  Without disclosing the terms, the firms wrote in similar notices that their "claims in this proceeding do not make, and never were intended to make, a charge of deception against MiMedx or its general counsel, Butch Hulse, and that the filed action in this matter was a good faith fee dispute, which now has been swiftly and amicably resolved."

But Quinn Emanuel has yet to drop its claims in the lawsuit, and MiMedx took aim at the law firm in an answer filed in a related Florida state court legal fee dispute with the former executives.  In response to the men's counterclaims seeking additional fees to appeal their convictions, MiMedx accused Quinn Emanuel of overbilling Petit and Taylor and then unfairly attempting to collect from the company.

"Quinn Emanuel will have to explain its billing and expense practices," MiMedx wrote.  "These include staffing its trial team with over ten professionals, mostly from out-of-town despite having a large New York office within a few miles of the courthouse; staying in a luxury boutique hotel; having meals catered by a Michelin-starred chef (and supplementing them with separate orders of crab legs and sushi to boot); and charging MiMedx tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on a 'last-minute' motion to adjourn the trial that the court found 'border[ed] on the frivolous.'"

MiMedx said Quinn Emanuel has refused to provide it with invoices for its expenses in the case, and that it and the other criminal defense firms have already been paid more than $18 million for their work defending the former executives.  MiMedx's counsel told Law360 that the company has indemnified its former executives where required, but that the law firms can't force it to pay unwarranted fees.  "The company has been reasonable.  It paid pursuant to the indemnity," said Louis M. Solomon of Reed Smith LLP.  "It always reserved the right to make sure that the fees were reasonable, and even now with the convictions in place, we're not obliged to advance any more costs."

Quinn Emanuel's in-house counsel defended the firm's billing practices to Law360.  "Quinn Emanuel tried this case during the pandemic and achieved an acquittal for its client on the most serious count," Marc Greenwald, who is representing the law firm in the New York case, said.  "Quinn Emanuel expects to get paid at the rates that MiMedx agreed, and our work was outstanding.  All the charges were appropriate and reasonable."

MiMedx lodged its Florida state court claims against Petit and Taylor in January seeking permission to stop indemnifying the former executives upon sentencing, as well as reimbursement for millions of dollars in already paid fees.  Petit and Taylor fired back with counterclaims soon after they were sentenced, arguing in April that the company must continue indemnifying them in the upcoming appeal.  Quinn Emanuel, Freshfields and Kobre & Kim filed their separate New York state court suit in April, alleging that MiMedx has violated its contractual duty to pay Petit and Taylor's criminal defense costs.