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Category: Billing Record / Entries

Judge Slams Hourly Rates in Wage Action

July 15, 2021

A recent Bloomberg Law story by Maya Earls, “Judge Slams Hourly Rates, Awards $1 Attorneys’ Fee in Wage Suit,” reports that a federal judge in Arkansas rejected a request for more than $30,000 in attorneys’ fees in an overtime pay dispute and awarded Sanford Law Firm $1 instead, saying the higher amount isn’t fair, proper, or just under the circumstances.  Sanford Law Firm represented a plaintiff in a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action filed against Eden Isle Corp.  The plaintiff accepted a $4,000 outstanding offer of judgment and later sought about $30,681 in lawyers’ fees and $1,225 in costs.

Sanford’s hourly rates “appear to be entirely arbitrary and unreliable,” according to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.  The firm requested between $240 and $383 an hour for attorneys, but other cases litigated by the firm during the same time period had lower hourly rates, the court said.  The more reasonable hourly rates are between $125 and $250 an hour, according to the ruling.

This case involved 13 timekeepers, ten of whom were lawyers.  Eden Isle noted that a large amount of time attributed to the lead lawyer was spent on in-house conferences and communication.  This is too much oversight for a lawyer who has been practicing for 11 years and focused her practice on employment law, the court said.  “As has been pointed out time and again, the random involvement of all of the lawyers and the constant oversight by the senior attorney are inefficient, unnecessary, and unreasonable,” wrote Judge Billy Roy Wilson.

Sanford sought more than $3,600 for work on a motion for summary judgment, but the motion was granted for Eden Isle before the plaintiff accepted the outstanding offer of judgment.  Wilson criticized the “frivolous request,” writing that this isn’t the first time the firm sought reimbursement for unsuccessful issues.

“Although plaintiff was, technically, the prevailing party, his ‘success’ was paltry, at best,” wrote Wilson.  The court cited other billing issues, such as duplicative billing and excessive time, that resulted in a petition that was “excessive and unreliable.”  Wilson reduced the costs from $1,241 to $416 because the $825 cost for a private process server isn’t recoverable.  The plaintiff will challenge the judge’s findings in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, according to a notice filed.

Attorneys’ Invoices in Prior Case May Be Admitted to Support Testimony

July 13, 2021

A recent Metropolitan News story, “Attorneys’ Invoice in Prior Case May Be Admitted to Support Testimony”, reports that a landowner who was sued by a man induced by a real estate agent into believing he had a contractual right to purchase her property when no contract had been formed was given a second chance yesterday by the Court of Appeal to win recompense from the realty company in a “tort of another” case for the attorney fees she incurred in the prior action.

The opinion was authored by Justice William Dato of the Fourth District’s Div. One. It reverses a judgment to the extent that San Diego County Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Styn denied attorney fees to plaintiff Hue Thi Dong Mai.

Styn did so, with expressed reluctance, in light of the Oct. 19, 2018 decision by the Fourth District’s Div. Three in Copenbarger v. Morris Cerullo World Evangelism, Inc. He read the case as barring Mai’s introduction of invoices for attorneys fees she expended in the breach-of-contract action against her, as inadmissible hearsay, and precluding him from taking judicial notice of what work was done in the prior case, over which he had also presided.

Mai was sued by John Fike who had been told by realtor Victoria Robinson of Keller Williams that a deal for the purchase of Mai’s property had been reach, when it hadn’t. After telling Fike that an accord had been reached, Robinson—desiring to obtain a commission on a sale for more than $1 million—then sought to persuade Mai to sell at the price she had set, but she declined.

After Fike dropped his suit, Mai sued Robinson and the company that owns Keller Williams under the “tort of another” doctrine which, Dato noted, “allows for the recovery of attorney’s fees as damages when a plaintiff is forced into litigation with a third party due to the tortious conduct of the defendant.” She obtained a judgment for $50,000 for emotional distress but nothing for the attorney fees she had expended in the action brought by Fisk.

Once Styn realized that attorney fees were being sought as damages subject to proof at trial, and not as costs which could be reckoned by reference to his own assessment of the value of services, he expressed a powerless to deviate from what he saw as constraints set down by Copenbarger and denied an award of those fees. Dato said he would read Copenbarger narrowly to avoid a conflict with other decisions.

He said of Copenbarger: “We are… of the opinion that its commentary on the inadmissibility of the invoices would only apply to cases where plaintiffs attempt to read the detailed entries on the bills during their testimony to prove the specific repairs made or services rendered—and not where the invoices are offered for the more limited and appropriate purpose of corroborating testimony that they actually paid certain amounts and/or to make a prima facie showing that the charges were reasonably incurred.

“As pertinent to this case, Mai sought to introduce redacted copies of the attorney invoices only to support her testimony that she paid the billed amounts and as some evidence that the amounts were reasonable….The trial court erred in broadly reading Copenbarger to preclude both Mai’s testimony and receipt of the invoices for these limited and appropriate purposes.  This evidence would have satisfied Mai’s prima facie burden to establish how much she paid for legal services and the reasonableness of that amount.”

Dato went on to say that Copenbarger “strongly implies—though it does not hold” that judicial notice of the content of the file in a previous action would be improper. He said: “The sounder and long-established rule is that materials filed by attorneys on behalf of litigants can be judicially noticed and provide evidence to support an award of attorney’s fees.  As relevant to this case, the materials filed on Mai’s behalf by her attorneys in the Fike action were properly subject to judicial notice and provide some evidence of the work performed defending that case.” A remand was ordered for the limited purpose of setting attorney fees.

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.

Class Counsel Argue for Attorney Fees in Flint Water Crisis Settlement

May 31, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Michael Phills, “Flint Plaintiffs' Attys Argue For Final OK of $641M Settlement,” reports that plaintiffs' attorneys want to seal the deal on a $641 million settlement over the Flint, Michigan, water crisis that objectors have said carves out too much for legal fees, arguing that the fee request is fair for the hard-fought work to secure compensation for an environmental catastrophe.  In a trio of filings, the plaintiffs' attorneys pushed back against several types of objections around the settlement, including the argument that a nearly 32% award of attorney fees is unreasonable.  The attorneys argue that their work produced something significant that the judge should sign off on.  They say that despite the objections the court has received, more than 50,000 have supported the deal, showing its widespread backing from the Flint community.

On the question of fees, plaintiffs' counsel defended their request as reasonable, reflective of the many years and hours of work spent on the case.  And they said the top line fee request is more complicated than objectors make it out to be.  "Some objectors have claimed that plaintiffs' counsel seek an award of more than $200 million in attorneys' fees.  That is not true — a substantial portion of the attorneys' fees in this matter will be paid by claimants to their individually retained counsel," the plaintiffs' attorneys wrote.

According to court filings, individual attorneys that were privately hired had often already locked in their fees and "much of the aggregate fee request will go to these individual attorneys."  In May, 26 individuals objected to the deal and raised a range of concerns, including that the settlement generally lacks clarity on what it entails and that it won't provide enough money to help residents as they try to move past a crisis that has left them with medical concerns and exorbitant water bills.

In March, other objectors opposed the fee request, saying a motion for the fee award included "scant detail" about the claimed common benefit work and didn't estimate what the common benefit fees might amount to.  "[The request] provides absolutely no evidence that ceding 27% of claimants' recovery to private attorneys for work sight unseen could possibly be fair to Flint residents who need this money to help them grapple with oft-debilitating, ruinous, and violent consequences of lead exposure for their entire lives," the objectors said.

They said that in "megafund" settlements of this size, typical fee awards are in the 10% to 12% range.  In March, the plaintiffs' attorneys made their fee request for their five years and more than 180,000 hours of attorney work to reach the "remarkable" settlement result.  "Contrary to every single 'megafund' case cited by the [objectors], this case involved complicated questions of sovereign immunity which necessarily rendered the case riskier and required a heightened level of skill," the plaintiffs' attorneys wrote.  They argued that they should not have to provide detailed billing records to certain objectors.

U.S. District Judge Judith Levy gave preliminary approval to the deal in January, saying that it is a partial settlement that doesn't end the litigation over the lead-tainted water.  The settlement with Michigan and others provides a mechanism for minors, injured adults, property owners and renters, those who paid Flint water bills and impacted business owners to receive monetary awards, the judge said. It also offers a "class action" solution for adults who have not hired their own attorneys, the judge said.