After Gerrymandering Challenge Win, Plaintiffs Lose Out On 45% of Attorneys’ Fees

Posted on April 24th, 2018 by Legal Fee Advisors

By Zachary Kalmbach.

A North Carolina federal judge slashed a fee request by 45% because of a number of billing errors and plaintiffs’ limited success. After partially succeeding in a gerrymandering challenge, plaintiffs requested $681,373.95 in fees, $14,960.24 in litigation expenses, $32,813.42 in expert fees, and $9,057.68 in taxable costs. The court reduced fees by 45%, litigation expenses by 42%, expert fees by 46%, and taxable costs by 40%, because of unreasonably high hourly rates, an excessive number of hours billed, and a number of unreasonable reimbursement requests. The result was an award of fees and expenses totaling $407,281.37, a 45% reduction from the requested total of $738,205.29.

For plaintiffs’ two lead attorneys, plaintiffs requested fees at hourly rates of $550 and $400. While the Court noted that the two attorneys were “excellent lawyers,” their rates contrasted sharply with local counsel in similar cases, as well as with defendant’s two lead attorneys, who billed at only $360 and $210 per hour. Accordingly, the Court reduced the lead attorneys’ hourly rates to $450 (from $550) and $280 (from $400). The Court also reduced the hourly rates of staff attorneys and analysts because they failed to meet their burden of establishing the reasonableness of the fees. Finally, the Court excluded all fees charged by interns, who billed at $150 per hour, as plaintiffs did not establish the reasonableness of charging fees in the local market for the work of interns.

A review of plaintiffs’ timesheets convinced the Court that many hours were “excessive, redundant or otherwise unnecessary.” The Court held that the attorneys dedicated an excessive amount of time to communicating with their clients, drafting and receiving emails, and conducting intra-office meetings. With the Court further holding that plaintiffs failed to prove “how the many hours of client conferences may have aided [counsel’s] preparation of the case.” Accordingly, the Court excluded 124.1 hours which, combined with the reduced hourly rates, resulted in a lodestar of $521,556.10. The Court further reduced this figure by 30% to segregate unsuccessful claims and account for limited success, resulting in a final fee award of $375,520.39.

Plaintiffs also requested $14,960.24 in non-taxable litigation expenses and $9,057.68 in taxable costs. As part of litigation expenses, plaintiffs’ counsel billed $615 for refreshments, maid service, valet gratuity, and food for the entire trial team. The Court found these expenses to be unreasonable and thus excluded them. The Court further reduced litigation expenses and taxable costs by 40% each to account for limited success. This resulted in a final award of $14,041.74 in litigation expenses and costs.

Finally, plaintiffs requested reimbursement for $32,813.42 in expert fees. The Court reduced this amount by 40% to account for limited success. The expert fees were further reduced due to unreasonableness. The experts’ time records tracked time in one-hour increments with only vague descriptions of the work done, and the invoices failed to provide specific information concerning how the experts spent their time. Because plaintiffs “[did] not support their request with contemporaneous time records,” the Court reduced expert fees by another 10%, bringing the total to $17,719.24.

All of the reductions resulted in a final award of $407,281.37, 45% less than the amount requested. This case reveals a wide array of ways a fee request can be challenged, including failing to segregate claims, unreasonable expenses, and improper billing practices. Attorneys would be wise to consult cases such as this when billing clients and drafting fee petitions.

Raleigh Wake Citizens Ass’n v. Wake Cty. Bd. of Elections, No. 5:13-CV-607-D, 2017 WL 4400754 (E.D.N.C. Sept. 29, 2017)

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