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Category: Hours Billled

Article: What is a Legal Fee Audit?

October 7, 2021

A recent article by Jacqueline Vinaccia of Vanst Law LLP in San Diego “What is a Legal Fee Audit?,” reports on legal fee audits.  This article was posted with permission.  The article reads:

Attorneys usually bill clients by the hour, in six minute increments (because those six minutes equal one tenth of an hour: 0.1).  Those hours are multiplied by the attorney’s hourly rate to determine the attorney’s fee.  There is another aspect of attorney billing that is not as well known, but equally important — legal fee auditing.  During an audit, a legal fee auditor reviews billing records to determine if hourly billing errors or inefficiencies occurred, and deducts unreasonable or unnecessary fees and costs.

Both the law and legal ethics restrict attorneys from billing clients fees that are unreasonable or unnecessary to the advancement of the client’s legal objectives.  This can include analysis of the reasonableness of the billing rate charged by attorneys.  Legal fee audits are used by consumers of legal services, including businesses, large insurance companies, cities, public and governmental agencies, and individual clients.  Legal fee audits can be necessary when there is a dispute between an attorney and client; when the losing party in a lawsuit is required to pay all or part of the prevailing party’s legal fees in litigation; when an insurance company is required to pay a portion of legal fees, or when some issues in a lawsuit allow recovery of  attorneys’ fees and when other issues do not (an allocation of fees). 

In an audit, the auditor interviews the client, and reviews invoices sent to the client in conjunction with legal case materials to identify all fees and costs reasonable and necessary to the advancement of the client’s legal objectives, and potentially deduct those that are not.  The auditor also reviews all invoices to identify any potential accounting errors and assure that time and expenses are billed accurately.  The auditor may also be asked to determine if the rate charged by the attorney is appropriate.

The legal fee auditor can be an invaluable asset to parties in deciding whether to file or settle a lawsuit, and to the courts charged with issuing attorneys’ fee awards.  The court is unlikely to take the time to review individual invoice entries to perform a proper allocation of recoverable and non-recoverable fees leaving the parties with the court’s “best approximation” of what the allocation should be.  The fee audit provides the court and the parties with the basis for which to allocate and appropriately award reasonable and necessary fees. 

Audits are considered a litigation best practice and a risk management tool and can save clients substantial amounts of money in unnecessary fees.  It has been my experience, over the past two decades of fee auditing, that early fee auditing can identify and correct areas of concern in billing practices and avoid larger disputes in litigation later.  In many cases, I have assisted clients and counsel in reaching agreement on proper billing practices and setting litigation cost expectations. 

In other cases, I have been asked by both plaintiffs and defendants to review attorneys’ fees and costs incurred and provide the parties and the court with my expert opinion regarding the total attorneys’ fees and costs were reasonably and necessarily incurred to pursue the client's legal objectives.  While the court does not always agree with my analysis of fees and costs incurred, it is usually assisted in its decision by the presentation of the audit report and presentation of expert testimony on the issues.

Jacqueline Vinaccia is a San Diego trial attorney, litigator, and national fee auditor expert, and a partner at Vanst Law LLP.  Her practice focuses on business and real estate litigation, general tort liability, insurance litigation and coverage, construction disputes, toxic torts, and municipal litigation.  Her attorney fee analyses have been cited by the U.S. District Court for Northern California and Western Washington, several California Superior Courts, as well as various other state courts and arbitrators throughout the United States.  She has published and presented extensively on the topic of attorney fee invoicing, including presentations to the National Association of Legal Fee Association (NALFA), and is considered one of the nation’s top fee experts by NALFA.

Quinn Emanuel Gets $185M in Attorney Fees in $3.7B ACA Win

September 16, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Dave Simpson, “Quinn Emanuel Gets $185M Fee From $3.7B Win in ACA Suits,” reports that a U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge granted Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP's request for $185 million in fees stemming from two class actions against the federal government over so-called risk corridor payments under the Affordable Care Act, which resulted in a nearly $3.7 billion total win.  Judge Kathryn C. Davis said that despite the "at times hyperbolic" motions for fees, the law firm did show "foresight" in focusing on a successful legal theory months before other parties jumped on that bandwagon.  She granted its request for 5% of the winnings.

"At the end of the day, what is more important is that class counsel's legal theory resulted in a huge award to the classes here," Judge Davis said.  Quinn Emanuel was the first firm in the country to file a lawsuit on behalf of a qualified health plan insurer accusing the federal government of unlawfully reneging on a commitment to shield ACA insurers from heavy financial losses.

Health Republic Insurance Co. sued the government in 2016 and in July 2020 won a judgment for $1.9 billion alongside a subclass of insurers.  Common Ground Healthcare Cooperative sued the government in 2017 over similar claims and won a $1.7 billion judgment.  Those cases set off a firestorm of parallel litigation across the country, alleging similar claims.  Two of those cases ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court.  In April 2020, the justices reversed Congress' denial of $12 billion in "risk corridor" funding, which the ACA dangled as an incentive for insurers during the law's first three years of operation.

While Quinn Emanuel didn't work on those cases directly, the firm argued in its request for fees in July 2020 that the Supreme Court "adopted the exact legal theory Quinn Emanuel set forth in the initial Health Republic complaint and which it advocated at every step."  But in August 2020, objectors like Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc., UnitedHealthcare Insurance Co. and others argued that class counsel was entitled to just $8.8 million after a lodestar cross-check.

They said that Quinn Emanuel had little to do with the litigation that ended up at the Supreme Court, and argued that the firm was trying to walk away with an award that would work out to an hourly rate of $18,000 per attorney.  Class members signed on to the suit with a guarantee that the proposed 5% fee award would be subject to a lodestar cross-check, the motion said, which the firm had eschewed.

Quinn Emanuel shot back in September 2020 that the $8.8 million award proposed would discourage attorneys in the future from taking on similarly ambitious cases.  The percentage model, which the insurers agreed to when choosing to join the class instead of pursuing individual claims, is favored by the courts for exactly this reason, the firm said.  According to the firm, despite the dozens of companies signing on to the fee objection, most of them Kaiser or United entities, almost 90% of the class members have not objected.

Judge Davis sided with the firm.  "These are not cases in which class counsel merely rode the coattails of other innovative litigators," she said.  The 5% fee is well below market value, and the objectors propose what would amount to a .22% fee, she said.  Further, the firm allocated 10,000 billable hours and might not have been paid for any of it had the outcome gone differently, the judge said.

Class Counsel Win Reduced Attorney Fees of $152M in Antitrust Case

August 30, 2021

A recent Reuters story by Mike Scarcella, “Class Lawyers Win Reduced Fee of $152M in Sutter Case,” reports that a California judge has slashed a requested legal fee award in an antitrust settlement with Sutter Health, approving $152.3 million in compensation for class counsel, after concluding the plaintiffs' lawyers had claimed "unreasonably high" hours for their work.  Judge Anne-Christine Massullo of San Francisco Superior Court gave final approval to the $575 million settlement as she awarded fees to five law firms that represented plaintiff labor unions and employers, in an order released.

Sutter Health in 2019 first agreed to the settlement resolving claims that anticompetitive practices led to higher healthcare costs in northern California.  The awarded legal fee marked about 26% of the settlement, in line with compensation in other class actions, Massullo wrote.  Massullo said her award accounted for the "risk presented by this litigation" and also "the novelty and complexity of the issues."  The plaintiffs' lawyers had asked for $172.5 million in fees.

Massullo's order awarded $11.5 million in fees to the California attorney general's office, which sued Sutter in 2018.  The state's complaint was consolidated with the private litigation, which began in 2014.  Massullo said the state attorneys and class lawyers "demonstrated a high level of skill in providing high quality of representation in this case."  Still, the judge raised concerns about the number of hours -- 194,642 -- that class lawyers claimed in their request for fees.  Massullo said the claimed hours compared to "93.6 years of work, or more than 7 years of work for 13 attorneys."

Declarations from plaintiffs' attorneys involved in the case "do not, except at a high level and very generally, permit assessment of the extent to which the five firms that constitute class counsel unreasonably duplicated efforts," Massullo said.  Still, she said she was "satisfied that this litigation was a monumental undertaking" that required a "vast number of hours."

Insurer Overpaid Policyholder’s Attorney Fees, Judge Finds

August 25, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Daphne Zhang, “Insurer Overpaid For Policyholder’s Legal Bills, Judge Finds,” reports that a New York federal judge said that an insurer's decision to stop paying a GoPro accessory maker's attorney fees was reasonable, finding the policyholder's defense counsel billed administrative work at partner rates and logged excessive working hours.  U.S. District Judge Mae D'Agostino denied 360Heros Inc.'s motion for summary judgment against Main Street America Assurance Co., saying the carrier's payment of more than $2 million in attorney fees fully satisfied its defense obligations.

The judge sided with Main Street in finding that 360Hero's defense counsel, Gauntlett & Associates, repeatedly charged "unreasonable and excessive" legal fees in an underlying patent infringement suit with GoPro.  The camera company sued 360Heros alleging the harness maker used its copyrighted pictures and infringed two of its trademarks.  The suit was settled in May 2018. 360Heros sued Main Street in 2017 after the insurer stopped paying for its defense costs.

"Based on Gauntlett's repeated practice of billing excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary hours the court finds that a 15% reduction in Gauntlett's fees is warranted," the judge said.  According to the order, a Main Street attorney found in 2017 that the insurer overpaid for defense costs after retroactively reviewing the payment history.  Main Street subsequently stopped paying the policyholder's legal bills, which 360Hero claimed violated its insurance policy.  "The amount of unpaid fees is significantly less than the amount that the court finds were reasonably expended," Judge D'Agostino found, saying that Main Street was fully entitled not to pay because the defense counsel overcharged on legal bills.

Some of Gauntlett's invoices were billed without any tasks designated to a paralegal, the judge pointed out, and the firm repeatedly charged administrative work at partner rates. Gauntlett also charged full rates for travel, which should have been billed at half of their hourly rates, Judge D'Agostino said.  "For travel to a one-day out-of-town settlement conference, [one Gauntlett attorney] billed for $418.48 in meals," she said.

Class Counsel Seek $4.3M in Fees in ERISA Settlement

August 17, 2021

A recent Law 360 story by Rachel Stone, “Columbia Workers’ Counsel Want $4.3M For ERISA Deal”, reports that a class of Columbia University workers and retirees asked a New York federal court for $4.3 million in attorney fees after reaching a $13 million settlement resolving claims that the university saddled their retirement plans with exorbitant fees and bad investments.  In the memorandum, the class of retirement plan beneficiaries argued that the attorney's request for the "market rate," or one-third of the settlement fund for class counsel Schlichter Bogard & Denton LLP, was reasonable, citing the complexity and risks of taking the case on a contingent fee basis.

"Class counsel leveraged their considerable experience in excessive fee litigation to achieve an efficient resolution of this matter, thereby avoiding the expense of a lengthy jury trial and substantial risk of nonrecovery," the memorandum said.  The class also argued that this attorney fee award would encourage more firms to take on similar cases in the public interest, which, like this case, further the Employee Retirement Income Security Act's goals of safeguarding workers' retirements.

Schlichter Bogard spearheaded a slate of cases against universities claiming their retirement funds charged beneficiaries too-high fees under ERISA, according to the memorandum.  The firm "retained the same level of commitment in each excessive fee case — to take the case as far as needed, appeal if necessary, invest whatever expenses were required and carry those expenses for potentially a decade or more," the class said.

The memorandum also referenced the class counsel's "extensive" discovery process to support their request for attorney fees. In total, the firm spent more than 15,000 hours on the case, sifting through more than 350,000 documents, deposing the named plaintiffs and dozens of others, according to the memorandum.  Plus, the class argued, ERISA matters are notoriously complicated.  The class also asked the court for nearly $640,000 in litigation expenses and $25,000 for each of the seven named plaintiffs who "risked their reputations and alienation from employers" in bringing suit against Columbia.